On the eve of the NBA trade deadline, I bring you a fresh column detailing some of the Xs and Os that I liked over the last week of basketball. With the tournament beginning and the column a priority, one’s ADHD might be at an all-(sorry, I just got distracted by a squirrel)-time high. Anyway, we start with the Hornets punishing the switch, then we dive into the under-appreciated V-cut in Miami. We take it over Philly, where the Bucks unleash scram switching to neutralize Ben Simmons. Then, we head to Phoenix, where the Timberwolves are unleashing Anthony Edwards’ athleticism with drag screens. Finally, we wrap up the column with a simple Horns action that the Raptors use to get Kyle Lowry open threes.
Hornets Play Chess
The Hornets’ ensemble of wings that can log minutes at the four against smaller lineups allows them to get creative with how they play ball screens. Charlotte’s quick, microwave-y guards encourage defenses to switch on the ball screens. While it can make it easier for more agile switches to contain those ball-handlers on the perimeter and stunt offense facilitation, it leaves the switch-off man very vulnerable. Watch how Cory Joseph is left on an island:
Nekias Duncan said it best. The best way to beat the switch is by setting slip screens. All Gordon Hayward has to do is get close enough to Devonte’ Graham to magnetically pull Joseph off of the ball. Once Hayward knows he has Joseph totally committed, he buries him in the post. It’s like taking candy from a baby.
Perhaps the most famous V-cut of the twenty-first century is the one LeBron James used to rid himself of Hedo Turkoglu before hitting the game-winning shot to beat the Magic in game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals. Shooters of all shapes and sizes use the V to create space quite often. You have to be careful, though. Too aggressive, and you’re getting slapped with an offensive foul. Not aggressive enough, and it doesn’t accomplish its purpose. The trick is to understand that it’s not necessarily about forceful contact. You can shake your defender without ever making contact with their body. You’re just trying to lose them long enough to get a shot off. The V-cut is about the sharp shape the shooter’s body follows as they travel to receive the ball. Dip down towards the defender, and then sharply knife away back towards where you came from. Allow Bam Adebayo to demonstrate.
Adebayo barely touches JaValue McGee. He simply makes his way towards the middle of the lane and tags him before punching back out to just below the free throw line. McGee is a bit heavy with the contest, and Adebayo is able to shake him with a one-dribble pull-up. If you trace a line following Adebayo’s movement on the court, you’ll draw a ‘V’. By no means is this anything fancy. But, it is something you see nightly, even if you don’t realize you’re seeing it. At the end of the day, that’s my goal with this column–to put an identity to some of the things you see in games every day.
This is one of my favorite subtle gems of the defensive side of the ball. You see switching all the time in the NBA. What it does is leave your defense vulnerable to targeting. The offense is going to cycle through your defenders until their desired offensive option has your weakest defender on them. Then, they strike. But, fear not. There are ways to counter that strategy. Watch how the Bucks counter post-ups from Ben Simmons.
This switch between Donte DiVincenzo and Kyle Lowry is known as a ‘scram’. The attention to detail is incredibly important when executing this strategy. If you switch too early, the passer making the entry to the post can just fling it across the court to the open shooter or make a lead pass towards the basket for a high catch and finish from the poster. Switch too late, and the poster can rifle it to that open shooter, themselves. The key to the scram switch is to execute it when the entry pass is in the air. That way, the play cannot be re-routed elsewhere as dictated by the switch. The scram switch gets a more favorable defender on the post player, and the targeted defender relocates to the switch’s old assignment.
Jrue Holiday is there to greet Simmons as he catches the ball, while DiVincenzo evacuates over to the weak side of the court. The Bucks time this switch a tad early. Danny Green is left open briefly, but Simmons doesn’t execute the pass. Simmons understood his size advantage over Holiday, and looked to weaponize it throughout this game. That explains why he rejected the open look for Green. I don’t fault him for being aggressive against a good defender, although he failed to get himself into a rhythm early in this game and he struggled mightily throughout this game.
Wolves Empower Anthony Edwards With Drag Screens
It is very difficult to hinder quick, athletic guards or wings in transition. It is even more difficult to do so with a screener there to knock off defenders attempting to slow said wing down. That is the ultimate purpose of drag screens. They simply add obstacles to help ball-handlers stay in space as they push in transition. You will often see offenses converge with a double drag set. All that means is two screeners set staggered picks instead of one singular screener setting a pick. Watch how the Timberwolves free up Anthony Edwards with a drag.
After Edwards crosses the half-court line in transition, Naz Reid sets a down screen on Devin Booker. Edwards breaks back to his left to utilize the screen, and then turns on the jets to attack the rim. No one calls out the screen for Booker, nor do any Suns rotate over to help as Edwards penetrates the lane. Booker’s body language says it all, and it’s justified.
Raptors Stretch Horns To Create Open Threes
I feel like I’ve written about Horns a lot lately. But, that’s because it’s a play design that is used in quite literally every game you watch. You see it less from teams that have guards capable of creating their own shots out of a basic pick-and-roll on a play-to-play basis. You also see it less from teams that are heavy on isolation offense. With the emergence of Fred VanVleet and the presence of Kyle Lowry, the Raptors aren’t spamming organized sets. With Donovan Mitchell and screen assist king Rudy Gobert, the Jazz aren’t spamming offensive structure, either. Nonetheless, I loved this Horns set late in the Raptors’ crushing loss to the Jazz on Friday.
VanVleet makes the first pass to Siakam (left eye of the bull). He then sets the pin-down screen for Lowry (right eye of the bull). Lowry curls around and receives a hand-off from Siakam. Gobert drops his coverage toward the rim to protect against the drive. That decision effectively grants Lowry a world of space to make a decision, and he elects to line up a triple.
This wrinkle to Horns empowers dynamic ball-handlers to make decisions, and it allows the offensive team to put the ball in its best player’s hands. You’ll live with the outcome ten times out of ten.
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