Maybe it was Kelly Olynyk that jogged Brad Stevens' memory. Or maybe it was the game clock.
The Boston Celtics owned a double-digit lead with 4.7 seconds to play in the first half of a January tilt with the Memphis Grizzlies. Many coaches would have been content to let their teams inbound the ball and race up the court for a desperation heave. But Stevens, armed with a timeout and his trusty whiteboard, was reminded of a full-court play he had run three years earlier at Butler University in a game against Gonzaga. It fizzled that day, though his Bulldogs, down one with 4.6 seconds to play before getting whistled for a traveling violation, still prevailed over Olynyk's Zags on a miracle steal and buzzer-beater combo. Stevens figured that play might actually work this time.
Olynyk set a screen that allowed Isaiah Thomas to catch an inbounds feed from Jae Crowder with momentum. Grizzlies center Marc Gasol alertly read the play and shuffled over to trap Thomas near midcourt, while Olynyk received a back pick from Avery Bradley near the center stripe and started racing down the opposite side of the floor.
Thomas managed to feed the ball ahead to Evan Turner, who quickly flipped it to the streaking Olynyk for a two-handed dunk -- and 15-point lead -- with 0.6 seconds remaining.
"I was joking with Kelly. I said, 'We would have beat you the first time when [Butler] played Gonzaga, but [Alex] Barlow, who is [one of Boston's video assistants], traveled,'" Stevens said. "You always look for what you could maybe run in certain situations."
Stevens, leaning on a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of potential sets and actions, has quickly distinguished himself as a maestro of the dry-erase board at the NBA level. At least once per game, he seems to draw up something that generates a key basket for his team, often in a crunch-time situation.
In Boston's past 26 games, a span in which the team owns a 19-7 record while moving 12 games above .500 overall and surging toward the top of the Eastern Conference, the Celtics are averaging 0.962 points per play on after-timeout plays, according to Synergy Sports data. That's a number that, if maintained, would rank the Celtics second in the league behind only Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs (0.979 ppp).
Told that his name is now invoked in discussions about the best in-game X's and O's coaches in the league, Stevens downplayed such praise.
"Honest to God, I've stolen everything we've ever done from somebody else," he said. "Now, it may not be exactly what they do, but it may be, 'Oh, I really like that action. This is how it fits with us.' We may need to position one of other players somewhere else, but I think they are all -- none of it is original. If anything, I watch film."
Sure, but all coaches watch film, and few of them display Stevens' creativity. Heck, Popovich admitted earlier this season during a visit to Boston that he still watches Butler game tapes to try to glean some of Stevens' secrets. At All-Star weekend in Toronto last month, Popovich doubled down on his praise by saying, "Brad is one of the top coaches in the league. He's a clinician, he's a technician, he's detailed."
For Stevens, his singular goal is to put his team in the best position to be successful. For 15 possessions per game -- or roughly 16 percent of Boston's total possessions this season -- he gets a chance to sketch a plan of attack. Maybe not surprisingly, Boston's recent ATO efficiency actually exceeds the team's overall offensive efficiency (0.936 points per play) for the season. Something about Stevens' instructions brings a calm confidence to his players, a belief that they will generate points if they simply follow their marching orders.
"Coach just draws a play up, and we execute, for the most part, out of timeouts," said All-Star guard Thomas, whose speed and fearlessness Stevens particularly likes to utilize. "We're poised in those situations. We believe in each other. We're confident in each other. I know when I have the ball, I feel like I can do anything. And my teammates feel the same way. I think we're just getting better in those type of situations, where we're just poised, and we're not in a rush, and everything slows down for us."
While at Butler, Stevens used to keep pads of paper near each TV in his house so he could sketch out a play that caught his eye during whatever NBA/NCAA/AAU/CYO game he was watching. The luxuries of the NBA have simplified that process. Stevens can email a Celtics video assistant with a request to cut a clip of any play he spots, and it will be added to a marathon edit the team keeps with interesting plays Stevens wants to poach and/or tweak.
How many plays are currently on that reel? "It's a lot," Stevens said. How many can he remember? "Well, the way that I remember it is, I name them in my own mind. So like my sheet of plays may not make any sense to anyone else, but it's how I remember it in that moment."
Stevens detailed how he might have a play called "Korver" that mimics an action the Hawks ran for Kyle Korver or a play called "Joerger" might remind Stevens of something Memphis and coach Dave Joerger run (Stevens singled out Joerger as one of his favorite play-designers; the two teams meet at 7 p.m. Wednesday at TD Garden on ESPN.)
However, ask Stevens to recall his favorite after-timeout draw-up, and he can't single one out.
"The ones that score," Stevens said. "And the ones that don't, I don't care about."
The secret to a play's success is typically rooted in Stevens' anticipation of how an opponent might react to an action, and that emphasizes his obsessive dedication to watching game film. Often, at the start of a timeout, Stevens will look down the court to confirm the opponent's personnel, then he goes to work sketching a play meant to exploit how he believes the opponent will react to a given action.
Sometimes Stevens doesn't need a timeout to put his players in the proper positions. During a visit to Miami earlier this season, the Celtics got an offensive rebound and reset with Thomas dribbling at the top of the key. Stevens started directing traffic on the floor, moving his players like chess pieces and creating maximum room to operate.
Satisfied with Boston's spacing, Stevens backed up a few steps and put his hands on his knees, then watched the play unfold. Thomas came off a high pick-and-roll with Amir Johnson and -- as Stevens anticipated -- Heat big man Hassan Whiteside started cheating toward the paint in case of a Thomas drive. Jared Sullinger, Whiteside's assignment, stayed planted outside the 3-point arc on the weak side and drilled a wide-open 3-pointer when the ball swung that way.
Boston players are quick to point out that no play, no matter how good the design, can succeed without the players executing and making shots. But there's an unfailing belief that Stevens is going to give Boston the best look possible, and every play he sketches has multiple options so his players always have an alternative if the preferred look is snuffed.
Sometimes the plays Stevens comes up with leave opponents unsure of what's coming. That happened in a game against Minnesota last month as, desperately trying to rally from a four-point deficit in the final seconds, Stevens sketched a sequence in which Boston floated an inbounds lob to Jonas Jerebko near the rim. It was a actually a decoy action, and Bradley soon raced off a Crowder screen for a clean 3-point look.
Stevens loves to use the threat of Thomas as a way to generate open shots for others. There was a sequence late in a game against Utah last month in which a Thomas drive drew multiple defenders, and he kicked back out to a wide-open Crowder for what proved to be the game-winning 3-pointer.
Late in the first quarter of a visit to San Antonio earlier this season, the Spurs were so preoccupied with Thomas as he sprinted toward the sideline that -- with the rest of the floor spread -- initial screener Olynyk took a simple inbounds feed, dribbled once and scored a late first-quarter layup.
After Stevens drew up a winner in which Crowder caught a lob for a last-second layup in Washington, John Wall tipped his cap and showered Stevens in praise.
"He's a hell of a coach, man," Wall said. "He's a young coach, but that's one hell of a coach that knows the game real well. Even at the end of the game, we lined up in different formation that he hadn't seen, and he called out our play before I got the ball. I heard him calling it out."
Added Wall: "Stevens does a heck of a job calling stuff that you wouldn't expect. [On Crowder's winning layup,] we all thought it would be a high pick-and-roll to Isaiah Thomas or an [isolation], and he ran a play we weren't expecting."
For the season, the Celtics rank surprisingly low in after-timeout efficiency, as a result of the team's slow start. Synergy data puts Boston at a mere 0.834 points per play, which ranks 26th overall in the NBA. The four teams below Boston include the league's basement trio of Philadelphia (0.78 ppp), Los Angeles Lakers (0.787) and Phoenix (0.828).
Even so, if Boston struggled earlier in the year, they're a well-oiled machine now. Stevens glows when discussing how the versatility and depth of his roster allow him to get creative when drawing up plays.
"We have an interesting team because I think we'd be hard to prepare for in those moments because we don't always go to the same guy," he said. "And that's a testament to the guys out here because they're all willing to take those shots."
Why wouldn't they? With help from Stevens, they're usually excellent looks.