Another week, another column. This one will feature more of the Xs and Os of basketball, with five plays that I liked from different games throughout the week. We start with a tremendous Horns set that the Cavaliers executed to perfection against the lowly Timberwolves. Then, we take it over to Miami, where Ish Smith sets Alex Len up with a gorgeous bounce pass. We take a quick flight to Philly, where the Sixers’ utility of Delay Action underscored an important component of Ben Simmons’ value. After that, we take a red eye flight to Los Angeles, where the Celtics used split screen actions to get Kemba Walker downhill against the Clippers. Our last stop on the way home is in Dallas, where Draymond Green weaponizes Steph Curry to open things up for his teammates.
The Cavs Go Horns
You can identify a Horns set rather easily by noting the player alignment on the court. In Horns, the two bigs set up at the elbows or higher with the ball-handler at the top of the key. Then, the shooters are pinned to the corners to stretch the perimeter defense out. If executed with the correct lineup and run well, it opens up significant pockets of space for the offense to penetrate the interior. Watch how JB Bickerstaff puts it to work:
Damyean Dotson enters the ball into JaVale McGee, which is an odd decision to begin with considering McGee has averaged less than half of an assist per game for his career. Weaponizing him as a passer out of the high post is not exactly a safe decision. However, if you have to choose between giving the ball to him and rookie forward Lamar Stevens, I can see why your trust might be with the veteran big man.
Dotson cuts through the lane, but Jaylen Nowell does a good job of staying in front of him and denying any type of comfortable pass from McGee. So, the Cavs are forced to cycle the offense down to the second option. Stevens sets a down screen for Dylan Windler to come up and receive the ball, and McGee obliges Windler’s availability to get the ball. Jake Layman overplays the catch to Windler’s left, which is his dominant hand, and that overplay invites Windler to attack to his right. Minnesota’s already putrid interior defense is left reeling to shut down the attack. Jaden McDaniels and Nowell converge on the penetrating Windler, while Stevens fades toward the baseline to provide Windler with spacing to attack. That leaves the rookie open for a quick deposit at the rim, and Stevens is happy to spring up for the two-handed slam.
Ish Smith, Bounce Pass King
Cheers to those undersized point guards without tremendous shooting prowess who find ways to distinguish themselves from the dime-a-dozen types that come and go every year. Ish Smith, after years of being overlooked by team after team, has found ways to set himself apart from the rest of the pack. For the veteran pushing 33 years of age, it’s the herky-jerky movements that push defenses off rhythm before he strikes. It’s the exemplary stop-and-start nature that defies physics. It’s the ability to make passes without slowing down and alerting defenses of what is to come.
Smith pulls out a shammgod to get Adebayo on his outside hip as he pushes into the teeth of Miami’s interior defense before stopping on a dime to get Adebayo to anticipate a shot at the rim. Adebayo may have had an emphatic block lined up, except Smith never picks up his dribble. The veteran point guard is able to elude, Adebayo with a hesitation move and then darts across the lane to pick up Avery Bradley on the help side. That additional defender coming over clears the runway for Alex Len, who plunges to the rim on a dive cut. He loses his dribble momentarily, but is able to recover just in time to tag Len with a bounce pass.
This play encapsulates something that has made Smith a fixture on teams for years: weaponizing his start-and-stop speed to attract helpers and then using that gravity to dime up teammates for easy finishes. This dime also captures one of Smith’s most incredible skills: passing on the move without slowing down. That capacity makes it significantly more difficult for defenses to predict his next move, and that makes him wildly dangerous.
Joel Embiid Playing In Space
Added some flavor to the Sixers’ offense has head coach Doc Rivers. The changes haven’t been sweeping, but they certainly have refreshed a tired scheme that had outstayed its welcome in Philadelphia when the Sixers reached their elimination in the bubble. One of the points of attention has been weaponizing Joel Embiid without immediately immersing him in the pressure of a primary defender and help defenders. Rivers has done that by introducing an action called ‘Delay’. It’s really quite simple. The play acts as an isolation, and it gives that appearance on the court. But, what it really does is weaponize Embiid in space without the expectation of an immediate double-team.
By putting the ball in Embiid’s hands above the break, it makes it quite risky for opponents to send doubles his way. If they do, he has plenty of angles to see his teammates and can make an appropriate read without too much stress. Plays like that have the effect of engaging Embiid because he’s receiving significant touches. With that degree of attention on offense, he doesn’t have any room to fall into a lull because he’s receiving the ball with the freedom to create his own shot.
Embiid’s MVP play this season has certainly made Delay effective. However, it’s a play that should be used in moderation, not with the frequency of Harden isolations in Houston. The reason is that Embiid cannot initiate an offense that is capable of generating sustainable production. He’s not a facilitator, although given his rapid development in a shortened offseason, who’s to say he can’t become a capable facilitator? He’s a dominant scorer and serviceable screener. The Sixers’ reliance on Delay in their loss to the Blazers last Thursday underscored the importance of having Ben Simmons on the court. Simmons, if you recall, missed the game with calf discomfort. Without him, the Sixers had no means of setting up their regular offense on a sustainable basis. So, they deferred to Embiid’s Delay action. While it helped net Embiid 31 first-half points, it had its expiration. The Blazers were able to blow Philly’s doors off in the second half because the Sixers were unable to generate any offense and then acquiesced after the Blazers opened the half on a 14-0 run. Sure, Simmons doesn’t shoot jumpers and he defers as a scorer, but he’s critical to the Sixers’ ability to consistently initiate balanced offense. That cannot be overlooked.
Split Screen Dancing With Kemba Walker
Your traditional split-screen action would run the ball out of the post with a wing setting a flair screen for the passer to be weaponized as a cutter or shooter. But, Brad Stevens is a reputed mad scientist, not a traditionalist. He initiates this one as an off-ball pin-down, but it has the same effect. The purpose of a split action is to get your shooter open or your ball-handler going downhill as a cutter or dribble penetrator. With Kemba Walker as your ball-handler in crunch time, you want to get him going downhill in space, much like they do with this split-screen action.
Robert Williams III is squaring up to screen for Walker just as Tatum makes the pass to his point guard. The screen and catch aren’t timed all that well, though. That allows Ivica Zubac to step up and cut off Walker’s line to the middle of the lane. Williams is forced to then reset and screen to get Walker going to his left. That decision forces Zubac to rotate over just a hair to his right, and he steps right into Walker’s trap. Kemba senses the space in the middle of the lane, and pushes downhill to get to his spot. It’s a midrange layup for the star point guard. Not a complex play, but it does exactly what you need in crunch time–a scorer shooting in rhythm.
Draymond Green Weaponizing Steph Curry’s Shooting Gravity To Facilitate For Others
We wrap up this column with a play that I love very much. A wonderful read at the top of the key by Draymond Green. A simple pin-down screen from Juan Toscano-Anderson. Steph Curry simply being present. What a joy.
Green catches the ball and immediately looks to the strong side of the court to facilitate the offense. Curry winds up the play by starting low, and then bursts through the screen as if he’s anticipating the pass. But, Maxi Kleber and Josh Richardson both follow him through the screen, as Curry has already torched the Mavericks in this game and they have to adjust to stay in the game. Green leverages the attention Curry gets, and dimes Toscano-Anderson, who cuts to the rim immediately upon Josh Richardson clearing the screen. Basketball is such a simple, beautiful game.
Featured Image: Orlando Ramirez/USA Today Sports