Scouting in the playoffs is very different than in the regular season. In the day-to-day grind of the season, teams don’t have the time or the energy to scout every opponent to the fullest. In the playoffs, all that changes. Every game is life and death, bringing about a switch in not just how players perform but how coaches prepare. Matchups are broken down and teams’ pet plays are studied in an attempt to find any advantage possible. Two major areas of study for assistant coaches and advance scouts are after-time-out (ATO) sets and sideline-out-of-bounds (SLOB) plays. Going into their series with the Washington Wizards, the Atlanta Hawks coaches have surely been holed up in the video room since Tuesday, diving into every play and its counter.
Wizards head coach Scott Brooks is a fantastic coach, one of the best we have in the game, but he’s not exactly known for his prowess on the whiteboard. Washington’s ATO playbook isn’t incredibly deep and looks very similar to their normal playbook; that is, John Wall runs a pick-and-roll and the stable of shooters spread the floor around him. It’s a formula that has worked for Washington this season as multiple Wizards have turned in the best years of their careers, including breakout star Otto Porter. However, that’s not to say Brooks doesn’t throw in the odd wrinkle to their pick-and-roll game when he sees the opportunity.
Washington’s favorite ATOs involve Bradley Beal, who has been lethal coming off screens this year. One of their most common ATOs calls for Beal to either hand to Wall or screen for him in the middle of the floor and clear out to one side. One of the Wizards’ big men will then step up to screen for Wall, but this is just a decoy; the big then sprints over to screen for Beal to come back to the top of the key for a jumper.
In all three clips, Wall gets a dummy screen to distract the defense before turning back to find Beal open at the top of the key. When Wall goes away from him, Beal’s defender relaxes, not knowing that the play is actually for Beal and he’ll be unable to catch up once Beal curls around the screen. In the third clip, Beal’s defender stayed home and contested as well as he could, but the screen from Marcin Gortat was too much and Beal was able to knock down the jumper. Gortat is among the elite screeners in the league and is a big part of getting Wall and Beal open.
When opponents are keyed in on Beal’s shooting, the Wizards will throw another set at them. Washington got the Hawks with this play in a game this regular season:
Tim Hardaway, Jr., who has already been announced as a starter for Atlanta in Game 1, will see a lot of time guarding Beal and will have to contend with the multitude of screens that the Wizards set for him. In the above clip, Beal is one of the screeners in a trio of bodies in the middle of the floor. Wall dribbles from one side of the floor to the other, which forces the Hawks to hedge on him in an effort to keep him out of the paint while Dennis Schröder recovers. Hardaway jumps out at Wall as Beal curls around a flare screen and goes to the rim. If Hardaway stops on the screen or tries to fight under, Beal will fade out to the three-point line and hit the open jumper. If, as it happens above, Hardaway fights over the screen to take away the jumper, Beal curls and goes to the rim for the lob. Once again, the initial screens for Wall are just a decoy to take the defense’s attention away from Beal, but the defense can’t afford not to take those decoy screens seriously; Wall will drive right into the paint any time he sees an opening in the defense.
Washington’s SLOB playbook doesn’t include as much misdirection, opting instead for the tried-and-true spread pick-and-roll to punish defenses. Most often, the Wizards will run Beal on a zipper cut (where he runs from under the basket from the top of the key) on the strong side, receive the pass from Wall, and immediately run into a pick-and-roll with Gortat or another of the big men. The advantage Beal has by catching the ball on the move and immediately running a pick-and-roll is that his man is often behind the play and unable to recover in time to make an impact defensively, leading to rotations on the weak side that leave shooters open.
Beal cuts to the top of the key and takes the screen from Gortat, triggering rotations from the Dallas Mavericks’ defense on the weak side. Wall, who inbounded to Beal, takes two steps onto the court and finds himself open for a three, which he buries.
Some defenses will try to contain the Beal-Gortat duo with two defenders in an attempt to dampen the need for weak-side rotations.
The Phoenix Suns chose to have their big man, Alex Len, hang back in the paint to split the difference between Beal and Gortat when Beal turns the corner into the paint. This works against some guards, including Wall, because the threat of a pull-up jumper isn’t as strong, but against Beal, this is suicide by three-pointer. Gortat sets another one of this patented screens, Beal turns the corner and sees Len in the paint, and immediately pulls up and cans the jumper. In this particular series, Dwight Howard will be matched up with Gortat, and Howard is infamous for his unwillingness and inability to defend outside of the paint, which could present major problems for Atlanta when Beal is handling the ball.
Another route the Hawks’ coaches could go is to have Howard trap Beal at the top of the key. Given Howard’s slow foot speed and Atlanta’s reliance on him as a rim protector and defensive rebounder, this seems an unlikely choice, but it’s an option should Beal hurt the Hawks with his shooting in the pick-and-roll.
The Wizards don’t have the deepest playbook out of timeouts and on out-of-bounds plays, but with Wall and Beal running the show, there isn’t a need for a ton of variety. Some simple misdirection is usually enough for these two to get going and the Hawks will have their hands full trying to stop Washington’s offense.