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Timberwolves Film Room: A Horns Triumph

Through the ‘Horns’ offense, Minnesota was able to secure a victory over the New York Knicks and old for Tom Thibodeau.

Throughout the season, the Minnesota Timberwolves have consistently disappointed on the offensive end. Sure, they can absolutely fall back on the excuse that franchise pillars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell have only managed to feature side-by-side in two games, or that 3-point sniper Malik Beasley was suspended for 12 games, or that Anthony Edwards understandably took time to find his feet as a boy in a man’s league. Still, the fact is they haven’t been consistent enough to warrant any kind of praise on that end.

The team has pushed their offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) from 105.7 in the 31 games under Ryan Saunders to 108.0 under Chris Finch, but their overall standing in the league has only risen from 28th to 24th. Again, in the latest win over the New York Knicks, that number was only 105.2, but as the game clock wound down, Finch went to an offensive game plan that he has had success with thus far in his short Wolves tenure.

By definition, the set is labeled ‘Horns.’ It involves two adjacent screeners, but Finch has used it sparingly as a means to initiate other actions and weave dribble hand-offs and pick-and-rolls into the offense into primary and secondary actions. Here is how it generally starts off:

Last night, Finch’s Horns sets were drawn up for rookie sensation Edwards, designed to get him downhill and put pressure on the rim without having him purely isolate against a set defense. Minnesota mixed in multiple looks down the stretch of the 102-101 win, but he went 3-from-3 on Horns looks within the final four minutes. All three sets had different intricacies and different players attempting the resulting shot, but they were laced with Edwards’ venom and ended in a huge bucket for the Timberwolves.

Finch first instructed Edwards to initiate Horns with 3:40 left and down by four points. In this instance, Edwards was used as a decoy, but the basketball gods have a way of rewarding those who do the right thing on the hardwood.

After Ricky Rubio enters the ball to Towns on the left-sided horn, he screens for Edwards. Instead of coming off the screen and into a dribble hand-off, Ant rejects the screen and bullets toward the front of the rim. This forces Julius Randle to help off the corner shooter and get a body in front of the freight train that is the 19-year-old. With Towns’ court vision and calmness under heavy ball pressure, he whips the pass to a spotted-up Jaden McDaniels who now has an open catch-and-shoot look from the corner.

To his credit, Randle does a good job getting back and contesting McDaniels’ shot, but with our old friend Taj Gibson guarding Towns on the perimeter and Randle closing out to the shooter, Edwards is left without a big to contest him for the rebound and he gets the easy tip-in. Here’s the play:

After a back-and-forth where Randle knocked down a tough jumper and Edwards split a pair of free throws and knocked down a soft floater out of a straight pick-and-roll drive, Minnesota needed a bucket to tie or take the lead. Needless to say, things are feeling tense. That’s when Finch goes backs to Horns.

Like any good offensive set, there are multiple actions and counteractions that can spring from it. This time, Edwards swaps places with Towns and receives the ball on the left horn, a deliberate ploy to get the rookie to curl off and attack to his favored right side. Rubio screens for Towns so that the big man can pop out behind the 3-point line, and the Knicks’ defenders have learned their lesson about leaving shooters open in the corner, leaving Edwards with an open lane to bully RJ Barrett to the rim and finish with a nifty reverse layup. Tie game.

Now that Minnesota has come all the way back from what was at one point an 18-point deficit, it’s time to actually get their noses ahead. Again, Finch runs it back with the game dangling in the balance. This time New York Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, as he often does with decades of defensive nous behind him, snuffs out the play and adjusts accordingly.

Instead of Gibson being glued to Towns on the perimeter, he sags back after Ant comes around the Towns screen. That gives Reggie Bullock enough time to get off Edwards’ hip and get back in front. Unfortunately for Bullock and the Knicks, Edwards was vibing, and he shimmies free again and, with Gibson having to get back out to Towns to prevent an open triple, starts his downhill ambush. Unlike the last Horns set, the Knicks pack the paint with help defenders, which leaves Rubio and Beasley open for long-range looks on the weak side. Smartly, Rubio and Beasley switch positions, which gets Beasley into the left slot and in Ant’s line of sight as he is swarmed in the paint.

Many first-year players would have panicked and tried to make the hero play here. Nobody would have blamed Edwards if he kept pursuing shots. But, Ant-Man composes himself, understands that Barrett is stuck in No Man’s Land between Rubio and Beasley, whirls around, and finds his shooter. Thankfully, the Wolves guard finally comes through in the clutch with a huge 3-pointer.

That made the game 102-101, and after some great contests on Barrett by Edwards and Towns, that’s the way it remained when the final whistle blew. For the fans, it was satisfying to get a victory over the much-maligned Thibodeau. For the players, it must have felt great to get a much-needed win against a playoff team. But, for Coach Finch, it must have been ultra-rewarding to watch his team execute his Horns vision to perfection down the stretch.