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Lessons from the 2021 NBA Playoffs: Half-Court Offense

While the Timberwolves might not be playing meaningful games this summer, the NBA playoffs are providing valuable lessons that they can take into next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

If you can’t beat them, steal from them.

The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t been legitimately relevant come playoff time since the glory days of Kevin Garnett. For reference, in the last 17 seasons, the Timberwolves have had one playoff appearance, and one playoff win. In the profound, poetic words of Pete Campbell from Mad Men, “not great Bob.”

Just because the Timberwolves haven’t been relevant in the playoffs since Anthony Edwards was in diapers doesn’t mean the playoffs are less important. From a base fandom perspective, more basketball is always a good thing. From a Timberwolves-specific lens, the playoffs give us a plethora of examples of what successful teams do to reach the pinnacle.

While we did see some new offensive philosophies under Chris Finch, the limited practice time and mid-season coaching change restricted the types of needed changes. I have complete faith that Finch will introduce an exciting offense next season; he certainly has the pieces for it. Here, I want to present and examine some half-court offensive sets that playoff teams have been using and would be refreshing to see incorporated into the Timberwolves’ offense next season.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Horns

The “horns” set was one of the main offensive changes we saw Finch immediately incorporate upon his hiring, so I won’t spend too long on it since we already have plenty of in-game examples. However, there was one action that the Miami Heat ran out of “horns” that caught my eye.

For reference, “horns” is an offensive set where the ball-handler brings the ball up the middle of the floor, two players are positioned in the corners, and two others are placed on the elbows (where the free-throw line and lane lines intersect). When the Timberwolves ran this post-All-Star break, it was typically their way of initiating a three-man game between D’Angelo Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Edwards. The Timberwolves’ “horns” actions typically involved both players from the elbow setting a ball screen for Russell and then working out of the pick-and-roll or one elbow player setting a cross-screen for the other to put them in motion. Simple but effective stuff.

I expect the Timberwolves to continue running these actions, but adding a little more flair and complexity to it would be encouraging. This action can be used to set up immediate scoring chances or to flow into other actions.

Here, the Heat set up in “horns,” and Andre Iguodala passes to Bam Adebayo on the left elbow. Iguodala runs off Adebayo, where they could execute a handoff. Since Giannis Antetokounmpo sags off Iguodala, Adebayo makes his read to go to the opposite side of the floor. On the weak side, Tyler Herro has left the right elbow to set a pin-down screen for Goran Dragic. Dragic circles up to receive the handoff from Adebayo. Dragic reads his defender going under the screen and pulls up for a relatively open jumper. If his defender had gone over the screen, Dragic would’ve been able to attack downhill in a two vs. one situation with Adebayo.

Chicago and Miami

The “Chicago” and “Miami” actions are pretty similar and an excellent way to get athletic wings on the move to create scoring or playmaking opportunities. A “Chicago” action has the target player set up in the corner. From there, that player runs off a pin-down screen and then receives a dribble handoff with his momentum taking him towards the middle of the floor. A “Miami” action Is the same setup, but the order of the handoff and the screen are flipped. Don’t worry; it’ll make more sense with the video.

The Phoenix Suns have run both of these actions relentlessly this postseason to get Devin Booker on the move. He has found scoring and playmaking opportunities in these situations. These actions would be a great way to put Edwards in motion to score or create.

Here, the Suns run “Chicago” for Booker. The speed at which Booker runs off the screen and handoff creates some confusion among the Denver Nuggets. As Booker comes off the handoff, Aaron Gordon is frantically trying to catch up while Nikola Jokic switches to Booker. On the weakside, Jae Crowder pops to the wing, and Deandre Ayton rolls to the rim. Michael Porter Jr is left as the lone weak side defender and has to choose between Ayton and Crowder. Booker recognizes that he’s attracted the double and has a two vs. one situation on the weakside. Booker first stares down Ayton, which freezes Porter, before kicking to Crowder for the three.

We also saw the Heat use these actions to put Dragic in motion to use his decision-making to put pressure on the defense. Dragic does an excellent job of stopping on a dime and using Adebayo’s brush screen to disrupt Jrue Holiday to create space for the open jumper.

Here, the Suns run “Miami” (handoff followed by the screen) to put the defense off balance and get Booker on the move. Yet again, Gordon is playing catchup, Jokic is forced to switch, and Porter is alone on the weak side. However, the Nuggets counter by having Facundo Campazzo shift to the paint to help deny the roll to Ayton. Now, the Crowder/Ayton problem we saw earlier is covered, but Mikal Bridges has been left open in the corner. Booker reads the coverage but can’t immediately make the skip pass to Bridges because of the positioning of Austin Rivers. To change the angle, Booker passes to Chris Paul, who immediately makes the touch pass to Bridges for the open three.

The Suns also used this action to create scoring opportunities for Booker. Booker begins the action the same as the previous video, but this time, Andre Drummond is dropping with the roller instead of switching onto Booker. This drop coverage eliminates the need for extra rotations, but it also allows Booker to attack space and knock down a relatively open jumper.

These actions work so effectively because the main players in them are both excellent scorers and decision-makers. Given the flashes of scoring and playmaking Edwards showed in his rookie season, the “Chicago” and “Miami” actions could be excellent ways to put him in attack mode.

Spain

The “Spain” pick-and-roll is another action that has become vastly more popular in recent seasons. It sets up with one player in the paint, a player in each corner, and the ball-handler running a pick-and-roll. It is disguised as a normal pick-and-roll, but the player in the paint rises to screen the defender of the initial screener. It creates confusion as the defense has to deal with a lot of motion and screens, and it is challenging to defend since there are numerous offensive counters. The Jazz have been one of the best in the league at executing this action.

Here, the Jazz look like they are running a standard pick-and-roll with Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert after the inbounds. The Jazz do an excellent job disguising the set by having Bojan Bogdanovic curl off a Gobert screen. Ja Morant fails to stay tight on Conley off the screen, which immediately puts the Grizzlies in a bad spot. Meanwhile, Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas are focused on dealing with the Bogdanovic backscreen. The concern over Gobert’s rim running and Bogdanovic’s shooting makes both defenders unaware of Conley’s uncontested drive.

This time, the Jazz run “Spain” with Donovan Mitchell as the ball-handler. Since Dillon Brooks is a stouter defender, Gobert holds firm to give Mitchell an excellent screen. Not wanting to give up another layup, Valanciunas preemptively drops to deny the drive and avoid the backscreen. Seeing no defensive pressure, Mitchell pulls up for the wide-open three.

Here, the Grizzlies try to counter by not pulling Valanciunas out with Gobert. In theory, this puts two perimeter players on the perimeter while Valanciunas can focus more on defending the paint and not avoiding screens and switching. Joe Ingles dribbles off the Gobert screen, which initiates the Morant switch. Gobert rolls to the paint, and seeing the open space on the wing, Conley immediately relocates instead of waiting to screen. To keep Kyle Anderson from switching to Conley on the wing, Ingles fakes a pass to Gobert before kicking to Conley for the three.

Other Sets

These last two aren’t as formal sets as the previous ones, at least to my knowledge, but I thought they were pretty fun and worth mentioning.

First, the Grizzlies do an excellent job of using Morant as an off-ball scorer. Morant quickly gives the ball up and initiates an “Iverson cut”. An “Iverson cut” takes a player from one wing and has them cut across, typically off a screen or two, to the other wing. As Morant initiates his cut, Brooks passes to Anderson on the elbow. Instead of continuing to the opposite wing, Morant curls off the second screen for a lob.

Sometimes, the most straightforward actions can be the most effective. Seeing Edwards scoring off of a set like this isn’t too difficult to imagine.

Finally, I have no idea what to call this one other than complicated, fun, and effective. The Jazz run a series of off-ball screens to empty the paint for what should be an easy Gobert dunk. Gobert has the ball at the top of the key, and Conley goes to set a cross-screen for Mitchell in the corner. Mitchell cuts along the baseline to the opposite corner, and Conley curls off a Bogdanovic pin-down screen into a handoff with Gobert. Valanciunas steps to Conley since Morant is playing catchup and Gobert slips to the rim. If not for a pass slightly behind and a bobble by Gobert, this should be an easy score.

With an entire off-season and a healthy roster, I expect the Timberwolves to have one of the most exciting offenses in the league next year. They don’t need to run a specific play every possession, but they need more structure than the last two seasons. The above actions are common among playoff teams because they are complex, require skilled and versatile players, and work. As mentioned previously, I have complete faith that Finch will implement new offensive schemes to maximize this roster. Don’t be surprised if we see an uptick in the above actions next season.