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Spurs Playbook: San Antonio’s inbounds play may be the best ever

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This ATO is so beautiful, you might have to look away.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

On a night deservedly belonging to the retiring of Tim Duncan’s number, there was a play that stopped my vacation and made me grab my computer to write. Coach Popovich called an ATO (After Time Out play) that J.R. Wilco is calling “a candidate for best ATO play ever.” And that might not be an exaggeration, this one is worth a closer look.

The ATO took place with the Spurs leading 85-68 in the third quarter and the Pelicans one play away from having their spirits broken.

Here’s the play:

Manu Ginobili inbounds the ball with Dewayne Dedmon at the strong side elbow, David Lee on the weak side elbow, Jonathon Simmons in the far corner and Patty Mills on the strong side block. The Spurs have used this Horns-esque spacing before in their ATO’s, but execute a new wrinkle with precision and flash.

Dedmon sets a down screen for Mills who streaks up towards half court. This cut by a point guard is typical in ATO’s as either a decoy or as a safety net if the primary options aren’t open. Tim Frazier, who is guarding Mills, plays him aggressively and follows him into no-man’s land. The hustle and scrap by Frazier is admirable but ultimately plagues the Pelicans. It’s a strategy best for late game situations to get a steal or for a quick foul. But Mills isn’t a threat from near half court, so running with him here effectively takes Frazier out of the play defensively when Mills back cuts him.

Before Frazier gets beat, Dedmon drops to the block after the screen and Simmons stays put in the corner. David Lee cuts to the strong side to receive the inbounds pass. Terrence Jones isn’t denying the pass to Lee, which further makes Frazier’s approach less effective; if the goal is forcing a five second call everyone needs to be denying.

As soon as Lee receives the pass, Mills cuts backdoor, an easy read with Frazier overplaying. Lee, without any hesitation or glance, delivers a one-handed bounce pass to the cutting Mills in stride.

At this point, it’s a three on two — Terrence Jones, Tim Frazier and Langston Galloway are all behind the play — and the Spurs are in great shape for a quality shot. Watch again from zero to three seconds to see how the Spurs gain a one man advantage.

At this point you have Mills attacking middle, leaving Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans as the lone defenders left to guard Dedmon and Simmons and contain Mills.

Both Davis and Evans instinctively crunch towards the middle reacting to the pressure Patty is putting on the basket. Evans, after showing on the drive, goes back towards Simmons to prevent the corner three.

This means Davis has no choice but to step up, and as soon as he gets to Mills’ side of the restricted area, Patty serves up an underhand lob to Dedmon for the two-handed finish.

Notice that Mills is at the elbow when he releases the ball. If he gets any closer, Davis is going to be able to disrupt the pass, whether it be a lob or a bounce pass. If you pause at the four second mark you’ll see he almost gets a piece anyway.

While it’s Davis and Evans who end up looking bad, it’s the front line of the Pelicans defense that lets the team down. As mentioned, Frazier is over ambitious and gets beat far too easily by Mills. Galloway is out of the play, but doesn’t get to the level of the ball to give himself a chance to get involved later in the play.

But the biggest failure is Jones. Once Mills has turned the corner he either needs to slide over to Mills, allowing both Davis and Evans to stay at home; or, more realistically, he needs to sprint towards Dedmon and allow Davis to pick up Mills’ drive.

Given how slow Jones is moving he probably wouldn’t have a chance. Still, as a coach, you’d like to see him make the rotation and give his team a chance. David Lee also does a nice job of popping behind the three point line which makes it harder for Terrence Jones, who’s responsible for Lee, to move away from his man and towards the rim.

The Spurs pick on some uninspired defense, but this ATO is also likely to fool a stingier defense. Even with perfect rotations, Mills is going to get a decent look at a floater.

The Spurs offense has been strong all season and sits at sixth in points per 100 possessions. They’ve won eight of nine games, holding five opponents under 100 points in that span. The Spurs haven’t given up more than 105 points since a November 24th victory over the Hornets. They are now third in the league in defensive points per 100 possessions. If they can keep that up, concerns about Parker and Gasol, as well as Kawhisolation, should quiet.

Here’s another look at the play, with a better AV quality: