Just over 30 seconds into the game, the Dallas Mavericks had already earned a subtle win against the Portland Trail Blazers, and Rick Carlisle glanced at Terry Stotts to make sure he knew it.
The two coaches caught eyes and smiled at each other. It was 2-0 Dallas and the ‘Scout Game’ had officially been won by the Mavericks.
This season Stotts started a new tradition with the Blazers, letting whichever assistant coach build’s the scouting report for that night’s opponent draw up the first play of the game. When Stotts told Carlisle about giving assistants the first play of the night, Carlisle immediately adopted it for his Mavericks staff. So when the Mavericks stopped the Blazers on the first possession of the game and scored on the other end, Carlisle could celebrate with a knowing grin aimed toward the home team’s bench.
The first play has become a quiet rivalry among the Blazers assistant coaches. When games open with a successful play there will be high-fives and fist pumps up and down the bench. If it flops there’s sometimes exaggerated silence.
“I don’t want to say it’s an inside joke,” Stotts said. “But everybody knows that it’s that guys play, and if it works, everybody celebrates. If It’s a dud, everybody lets him know.”
The first play of the game is installed at morning shootaround. Although it sometimes looks like something out of the Stotts’ playbook, it’s created whole cloth from the mind of whichever assistant coach has been assigned the scouting report for that particular opponent.
When the players walkthrough it at shootaround at the practice facility, it’s the first time they and Stotts have seen the new play. The team will go over it again when they meet in the locker room prior to that night’s game, again with an assistant coach commanding the dry erase board to draw up the actions. Stotts is hands off in those moments, letting his assistants run the show.
Then shortly after tip off the entire team, and particularly the seven-man coaching staff, anxiously wait to see if the new set works.
“They’re always getting on us like, ‘Don’t mess it up’ or ‘Make sure you score,’” Moe Harkless said of the Blazers assistants. “It’s a fun thing we do. It’s pretty cool.”
Inspiration for the opening plays come from a variety sources. Sometimes it’s a play an assistant coach ran with a high school team he coached or an old set the Blazers used to run that’s been lost as personnel changes and the playbook evolves. But considering the playful ribbing that comes from a failed first play, most coaches keep it pretty vanilla.
“It’s always a mix of an action that we already do and then it’s like a new little wrinkle in there,” Damian Lillard said.
Against the Mavericks, the Blazers opened the game with an action they used to run for Chris Kaman, in part because Kaman happened to be in attendance at the Moda Center that night. Blazers video coordinator and player development coach Jon Yim drew up the play -- named "CK" -- for Nurkic, but the Blazers center fumbled the final pass out of bounds.
Blazers assistant Dale Osbourne had the scout against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday. He came up with a double-baseline screen to free up a Lillard-Nurkic pick and roll on the left wing. Only the Pistons double teamed Lillard, and he had to pass over to Jake Layman for a rushed three-pointer.
“He probably won’t get more first plays,” Harkless joked. “[The play] wasn’t really for Jake but he’s gotta take the fall.”
Some of the first plays drawn up by assistants can even get absorbed into the Blazers’ regular playbook. A first set the Blazers ran against the Lakers earlier this season is now a somewhat regular play call. And other actions the assistant coaches have experimented with in their plays have been adopted here and there.
There is some logic to how these game-opening plays get drawn up. Sometimes coaches want to get a particular player going early so they’ll draw up a post up for Harkless or an early touch for Nurkic down low. Al-Farouq Aminu quipped that he’s the only starter that doesn’t get first plays drawn up for him.
Stotts had let coaches draw up the first play of the game sporadically over the past few seasons, but this year he’s fully embraced the idea of: ‘Your scout, your play.’ That tradition has made for entertaining moments to open games when Blazers assistants are either wildly excited or playing it cool when their play call goes south in a hurry.
“It’s good just for having a little bit of ownership,” Rodney Hood said. “It’s a little thing between the assistant coaches. If we score on the first play everybody gets all happy for whoever the coach is. I think they keep tabs of it. I think they got an ongoing thing for the season, whoever’s got the besting scoring percentage or whatever. It’s a lot of pressure on the players to score.”