Remember the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns? Those foot-to-the-floor gunners of the mid-2000s helmed by Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire and Mike D’Antoni, flanked by star-studded role players like Shawn Marion, Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa?
Well, the Minnesota Timberwolves aren’t that. That iteration of the Suns won 232 games over a four-season period, and the Wolves have walked away victorious in just 200 games over the last seven seasons.
However, the light at the end of the tunnel has started to glow a little brighter of late, with the Wolves holding a 15-18 win-loss record since the All-Star break and an 8-7 record in the last 15 games. And, in their own way, Minnesota has found success with a modernized version of machine gun basketball.
They don’t quite have the personnel or coaching know-how to operate at the lightning speed that those Phoenix teams did — especially considering how much the entire league has sped up and how well teams are drilled in defending high-velocity offenses — but they have been terrorizing defenses within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, figuring out the pace-and-space stylings of Chris Finch as they go.
Over that 15-game stretch, Minnesota has attempted 39.1 percent (5th in the league) of their field goals within the first 10 seconds of having the ball and hold an effective field goal percentage of 62.8 percent (7th). The only other teams to rank top-10 frequency and efficiency are the Golden State Warriors, Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies, all of whom happen to be playoff/play-in teams with winning records.
Typically, as the shot clock winds down, it becomes harder to score. Instead of being able to attack a bent defense that is still trying to match up successfully, would-be scorers are faced with a set defense that are accustomed to making stops in that situation. So, being able to thrive in that situation is a perfect way to create offensive advantages.
Some of these scoring opportunities come from the license to push the ball and freestyle, even if it results in a missed field goal early in the clock. All it takes is one defender taking the wrong angle at the point of attack and voila, easy points.
Here’s a perfect example, as D’Angelo Russell trades in his usual plodding style for a quick left-to-right crossover that completely implodes an already shaky Orlando Magic defense. The key to this play is the smart cutting by Jordan McLaughlin and Josh Okogie to disrupt the unsettled defense even further — a theme of Minnesota’s recent offensive performances. Mo Wagner (Okogie’s man) has to rotate to stop an easy Russell layup, J-Mac dives to the front of the rim from the weakside slot, taking his man with him and leaving Okogie in the dunker’s spot to catch the drop-off pass and finish with the Statue of Liberty slam.
Another profitable avenue to quick points is obviously in transition, especially in live-ball turnover situations where Minnesota can move up the floor quickly without having to take the ball out of the net. We know they have struggled mightily in virtually all aspects of defense this season, but Chris Finch’s defensive tweaks have at least allowed them to create more turnovers and fast breaks.
Placing the microscope back over the last 15 games, Minnesota have ranked 3rd in steals per game (9.3) and 4th in blocks per game (5.7). They still have a bunch of individual liabilities and team breakdowns on that side of the hardwood, but causing chaos and forcing those live-ball turnovers has helped their defensive rating (113.1) rise into 18th place leaguewide during that span of games. From there, they have been much more potent as a transition-scoring team, and the one-on-none buckets on the break act as confidence-builders for offensively challenged players like Okogie and Jarred Vanderbilt.
Plays like that will inherently make themselves available throughout a game, especially when a team is looking to push the pace consistently. But, where things can break down is figuring out set plays that generate quick points. That’s where Minnesota has been buttering their bread lately.
A fast-paced offense has been a public priority since before Finch took over from Ryan Saunders as head coach, but, before Finch’s arrival, it always seemed to be more of a pipe dream philosophy than something that was meticulously planned. Of late, that seems to have changed. Finch has his team running smash-mouth sets to get his best players involved early and often.
In Finch’s offense, getting good, early looks almost exclusively through dribble hand-off (DHO) actions is paramount. Of course, there is the most elementary version of that, like this ball reversal into DHO that empowers Anthony Edwards to punish Jimmy Butler for going under the screen and trying to plug up a driving lane. The reason this works so well (and so quickly) is because of the urgency of the players. Russell doesn’t linger on the reversal and Naz Reid practically sprints to the slot to get the ball into Edwards’ hands. The Wolves’ players have seen speed work in their favor, and now they are leaning into it.
Using the threat of a standard DHO as a foundation, Finch can branch off into different looks. Again, they start with the ball reversal to the big man at the top of the arc here, but this time it’s Karl-Anthony Towns, who opens a litany of doors and windows with his facilitating chops. Edwards feints to set a pindown screen so Russell can come off it and catch the ball or have more space to come around the Towns DHO, but just at the point of contact, both players slip to the rim and leave their opponents in the dust, resulting in an open layup for Russell.
The DHO doesn’t always have to involve a big man, either. Take this ‘Miami’ action for example, where Russell hands it off to McLaughlin before doing a 180 and jetting off a quick Reid pindown to get the rock in his shooting pocket and open for the triple.
It’s no surprise that Finch’s most successful actions all involve Russell as the finisher. Staggeringly, he has 70.1 percent effective field goal percentage in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, compared to 45.8 percent in the final 15 seconds, per NBA.com. For all that is said about Russell’s ability to knock down isolation shots as the time winds down, he is actually better suited to quick-hitting plays that allow him to spring free for jumpers or dive to the rim for easy buckets.
Clearly, Finch and the rest of the coaching staff have clocked this, and they continue to use Russell in creative and effective DHO variations at the beginning of possessions. On the surface, they have the same basic principles and look similar in many ways, but the precise details that make them different are what catches defenders slipping and adds another layer to opposition scouting reports.
In the clip below, Russell feeds Juancho Hernangomez as the Spainiard rumbles around a Reid pindown, before taking back the hand-off immediately and using Hernangomez as a shield to create space for the jumper. Again, it’s not dissimilar to the previous ‘Miami’ action, but the devil is in the changing details. Instead of a DHO as the first move, Russell fires a pass to Hernangomez, whose head of steam carries him into the DHO seamlessly. Same but different.
With other elite scoring threats often on the floor alongside Russell, Finch needs to find a way to share the sugar. Thankfully, his DHO-centric early actions can work in their specific ways with both Towns and Edwards doing the finishing.
With defenders trying to avoid Edwards or Russell getting the aforementioned open 3-point looks, they often overplay the man on the hand-off, and that opens up avenues for Towns as an early shot clock scorer. All it takes here is a simple fake DHO, where his man drops to try and guard against a drive, and he is wide open for the long-ball.
And then, of course, the cream of Finch’s early action crop, which is a ‘Double Drag Exit’ set that sets up Towns for a 3-pointer. If the play doesn’t work, there are multiple counteractions that create different — but similarly effective — looks. In my humble opinion, this is Finch’s most exquisite play. Using Towns as a genuine shooter is legitimately frightening to defend, the counters are efficient, clean and simple. Perhaps even more exciting is the fact that there is still layers that can be put on top of it that we haven’t seen yet. It’s the perfect early shot clock set for this team.
Here is the play and counters broken down in more detail:
Minnesota is doing many things better over the last 15 games. From sharing the ball to defending to just having the luck of playing crappier teams. However, there has been nothing more impressive from a technical standpoint than their willingness to work for early and open looks. Not only does Chris Finch deserve a lot of credit for drawing up some of the sets broken down here, but the players deserve their flowers for doing it all with 100 percent intensity and executing them perfectly even at the tail end of another lost season.
The Wolves are starting to build an identity. It’s so obviously what they were lacking during the horror run to start the season, but they’re building it. Better late than never, right?
It’s not going to lead to much tangible success this season, but installing good habits and proving — to themselves as much as anybody — that this fast-paced, run-and-gun style can work is a gigantic step in the right direction.