Nothing can summarise the drastically positive offensive overhaul from Minnesota Timberwolves Head Coach Chris Finch better than this one play as clipped by our friend Kyle Theige.
I still think about this play design by Finchy like 14 times a day. pic.twitter.com/MjOVd7vMfI— Kyle Theige (@KyleTheige) July 29, 2022
A give-and-go to set up a flare screen for Anthony Edwards to tie the game in the Wolves’ most important game of the season. Finch has always been renowned as an offensive genius but the execution was flawless by the Timberwolves.
Finch’s offensive prowess and attention to detail isn’t fully uncovered until you delve into the context behind this play, and how the Wolves set up this look, on this stage, throughout their regular season games. I’ll begin to explain below.
This was one of the Timberwolves’ more popular SLOB (Side-line out of bounds) plays of the season. Labelling general doesn’t matter but it would be labelled ‘Corner Flare’.
The concept is simple. A good shooter, in this case Malik Beasley, inbounds the ball. There is an exchange between a big man and D’Angelo Russell. This does two things. Firstly, it gets the screener, Nathan Knight, in position to receive the ball freely at the elbow. This is called ‘corner’ offense; Rick Adelman invented it, with the help and influence of Princeton offense experts such as the late Pete Carril. The other effect of this setup is it allows Russell to dive to the corner. Before the ball is even inbounded, getting an effective pull-up shooter in Russell to the corner is good, but generally the Wolves would end up using him as a decoy to get a shooter a clean look off the flare screen.
Here’s what the play looks like if a team overplays the flare screen and sags off into the paint off of a less threatening shooter in Jordan McLaughlin.
The Wolves ran this relatively often in the regular season. Generally, the flare was open, but they showed the ability to execute counters out of it. The players had great familiarity with it and if teams weren’t prepared for it they almost always conceded a high value shot to a good player.
Let’s now revisit the play at the top of the article.
The beginning of the play has what seems to be a loose ‘screen the screener’ action for Russell as he back-screens for Jaden McDaniels then rotates down towards the corner. In the NFL this would be referred to as ‘window dressing’ and it’s definitely applicable to Basketball. They mostly ran this to get Russell to his spot in a way where it was difficult for the defense to deny it without violating basic defensive principles. Memphis decide to switch Desmond Bane onto D-Lo. Notice how as this is happening, Karl-Anthony Towns fights for position so he can receive the ball around the elbow.
Here’s where this gets interesting though. The Memphis Grizzlies are among the most well-coached teams in the NBA and they are actively looking at film. This is pretty obvious when looking at how (now-Wolf) Kyle Anderson attempts to defend this.
He’s not really focused on KAT or pondering another movement from McLaughlin. Anderson is essentially blocking the pass to the corner because he knows the Timberwolves run an incredible quick hitter out of this outline. What happens next shows not only Finch’s genius, but also J-Mac’s incredibly quick processing speed. The moment J-Mac pitches it to KAT, Anderson is behind the play because he was trying to put a human blockade to the corner so D-Lo wouldn’t get a decent look. Minnesota utilised Memphis’ preparation and smarts against them, perfectly executing a counter and getting a good playoff look for their best scorer.
Generally speaking, a set play isn’t worth much in a playoff setting if there isn’t a counter to it. Teams are only focusing on your team so any team with a semi-decent coach is going to know exactly what out of bounds plays you go to and try and take it away. Grizz Head Coach Taylor Jenkins and Miami Heat Head Coach Erik Spoelstra are the masters of scouting set plays.
Though the Wolves would of course go on to lose this series, the execution of the set play here summarises just how far Minnesota has come. This wasn’t simply a play Finch drew up on a whiteboard. It was a play that happened because the Wolves mastered something in the regular season and had the tactical nous to have a counter ready when a team inevitably tried to take it away. That’s the definition of being playoff-ready. Though you may think every team has counters to their set plays and core looks, this isn’t the case. Having flawless and devastating counters is the sign of X’s and O’s mastery.
Around 18 months ago, towards the tail-end of the Ryan Saunders era, I wrote a critical piece on the team’s offensive scheme. It was bland and didn’t bend or compromise the opponents’ defense in the slightest. The ‘selling point’ of the offense was that it got a high percentage of shot attempts in the most analytically-friendly areas — the paint and beyond the arc. What wasn’t hammered home enough was that there had to be an effective and creative process in getting to these areas. Just taking a shot because it’s in a ‘good area’ was not good practice then and it wouldn’t be now.
Though it has to be noted that the Timberwolves now have better personnel than they did under Saunders, and also that they aren’t in the grip of a horrendous pandemic, the processes now are just streets ahead of what they were previously. Nothing is bland, nothing is predictable and the Wolves are a team to be reckoned with. The memories of the Houston Rockets shutting down Tom Thibodeau’s playoff offense by aggressively denying post entry passes is seemingly in the rear-view mirror.
One of my major issues with the Saunders offense’ was that it was seen as promising merely because of an analytically friendly shot profile. Per Cleaning the Glass, they were top five in ‘location EFG’, which is simply a measurement of shot attempts that weights shots at the rim and from beyond the arc higher. Despite this, they were comfortably a bottom-five offense and putrid in the half-court. In Finch’s first full year in charge, the Wolves were once again top five in this metric. The difference now is that they were actually a top-ten offense. The only other good offense in the top five of this metric was the Charlotte Hornets’ offense. Though the goal has stayed the same, Finch has smoothed and corrected the procedures to get there.
It must be noted that while the half-court offense is important, it’s also generally a good thing to get out in transition as much as possible. The Wolves do this at a rate only bettered by the Raptors and the Grizzlies, per Cleaning the Glass. The difference now is that the Wolves have clear hierarchy and structure when they do get into the half-court. It must also be noted this is while having Jarred Vanderbilt play huge minutes, who is extremely limited offensively.
Window Dressing and Pick-And-Rolls
The diversity of Finch’s offense means there are plenty of places you can start when breaking the scheme down. However, the diversity also means there isn’t an obvious place to start. The Timberwolves offense is beautifully designed with actions generally flow into one another. My main critique of the Saunders offense was that pick-and-rolls were bland and didn’t utilise any first action to move the defense and create an advantage. The Saunders’ system relied on non-three-level scorers to create advantages without any help from the scheme. Nothing showcases the Finch system more than the variety of ways they can get into the NBA’s most popular action. Chronologically, it makes the most sense to begin with early offensive actions.
Pistol and Delay
Both of these actions are amongst the most popular in the NBA and the Wolves run them an awful lot. Delay is where a big man has the ball at the top of the key and has two players on either side of him. Pistol is a 2-man action in the early offense originating on the side-line. There are multiple options out of these two common actions and Minnesota uses almost all of them.
Above is probably the most common read out of delay: Chicago action. It’s simply a handoff where the player receiving the ball comes off a screen. Minnesota ran this a lot for Beasley to keep him involved in the offense. It’s effective because wing pin-downs are generally hard to defend, while helping off of KAT and blitzing the ball handler is going to leave an elite shooter like Towns open for 3.
The Wolves like to use delay to get opportunities for the 3-point contest champ, as you can see below.
Help defenders are in a tough spot when they are involved in delay actions, due to the amount of offensive options available. On this occasion, KAT senses a lane vs Dwight Powell and dives to the rim for an easy score. Thibodeau mostly tried to get KAT on the block, but Finch likes him to attack from deep so delay is a good piece of window dressing to get him these looks.
Delay is generally quite a common action when Naz Reid is in the game. His overall fluidity and decisiveness is a good mix with the strengths of the concept. Take the play below as an example.
The Wolves send Jaylen Nowell to the top of the key off the Chicago action (It’s still called Chicago even though there wasn’t an actual screen set. Reid acts quickly to get into a 2-man game with Jordan McLaughlin. Empty side pick-and-rolls are generally deadly because there isn’t a chance for nail help without giving up an open 3 or a driving lane to the man at the top of the key. Reid and McLaughlin’s tempo is a good mesh with delay actions.
To add on to this, a recent metric published by SIS Hoops furthered my understanding of how offenses work.
Beyond creating advantages, extending and capitalizing on them is a crucial dimension of offense. When inheriting advantages created by teammates, these players are most adept at keeping advantages alive by passing them along to teammates or launching high-quality shots: pic.twitter.com/S20xeb2s11— SIS Hoops (@SIS_Hoops) August 26, 2022
Advantage creation is essential, but for bench and lower usage players, being able to sustain advantages is arguably more important. Naz Reid and Jordan McLaughlin show up here and this just further hammers home the idea that not only do the Wolves put players in positions to succeed, but they have the right players for the deadly actions they run. This is a huge difference from previous coaching staffs.
I mentioned that the Wolves offense meshes together, and the first example of this will be shown below, as they flow into Delay offense out of ‘pistol’ action. Pistol action is a 2-man action that takes place on the sideline. It’s an effective way of potentially getting a quick layup, but generally teams defend it. It’s from there that the flexibility of pistol or ‘21’ action is truly showcased.
From this outline, the Wolves could run ‘Miami action’ which is simply a handoff straight into a ball screen. Instead Prince pitches it to KAT and tries to free up D-Lo with a pin-down screen. The Golden State Warriors defend the split cuts well but KAT shows his isolation prowess and drives in for a layup. Again, good actions can of course be defended well but such disruption to the defense can allow your 1 v 1 scorers to get easier looks.
The Wolves also like to sometimes use pistol to flow into pick-and-roll actions. A criticism I’ve had of past Wolves’ scheme is that they didn’t move the defense enough before their pick-and-rolls. It’s not probable for every single pick-and-roll to have an action preceding it but it’s a good way to have an intertwined offense so doing it when possible is good practice.
On this play, the Wolves run ‘Pistol flare chase’. It’s a variant that’s becoming popular. This is simply a flare screen where the big follows the action. Any action where the big does this is called ‘chase’. The flare screen gets Kent Bazemore trailing Russell, which creates an advantage and the Wolves hammer it home. Pre-action is arguably more important for the Wolves as Russell lacks burst compared to some of the other guards in the NBA. This was a great example of meshing getting him an opportunity for a catch-and-shoot 3 with getting into a screen and roll.
On the play below, Minnesota rejects the pistol action and flows into an empty side pick-and-roll. These are hard to defend because there’s no possibility of help from the strong side. It’s another example of the Wolves having variety and not just relying on the same action every time. You have to keep defenses guessing.
Having a good offense is generally about finding a mesh between structured sets, but allowing players freedom to be creative and not completely over-coaching them. Having a read and react offense is essential, but a complete lack of structure can just erode that into a chaotic mess with more reacting than reading.
This play is a great example of this. The Wolves push the pace and look as if they might flow into a two-man action. The Sacramento Kings are clearly expecting something as their defense is tilted to that side. KAT reads this and sets a pin-down for Taurean Prince. It’s simple but a good example of how thinking on the fly and good execution go hand in hand. The Kings had clearly identified pistol as a feature of the Wolves as they overloaded the strong side in this particular game.
Pistol and delay are both good early offensive actions that the Wolves execute on a base level, but also ensure they flow into other actions. Offense starts the moment the shot-clock does, and the Wolves use the two best and most notable early offensive actions when they don’t have a clear driving lane in transition.
Horns has undoubtedly been Finch’s favorite action while he’s coached the Timberwolves. It’s often his go-to in close games and he has a lot of different outlines and reads for his players to use. Let’s begin with his favorite play for Edwards — Horns out.
It’s as simple as it sounds. Edwards moves ‘out’ of a horns look. Horns is simply when a ball handler has two players directly in front of him at the top of the key. The Wolves utilize horns out to get Edwards into a two-man game on the empty side. From here he can shoot a pull-up, or drive to the rim. It’s just a great use of his overall scoring versatility. Below is what it looks like if Edwards has a clear lane to the rim. It’s almost guaranteed to give him a platform to create an advantage.
The Wolves have also used horns out to simply flow into a pick-and-roll. It’s yet another way they flow into one of basketball’s oldest plays.
As mentioned previously, actions get countered in the playoffs. This is especially true for Minnesota because their opponents know they have so many reads out of their core actions.
The Los Angeles Clippers essentially ‘top-lock’ Edwards. Marcus Morris completely denies him a move to the outside. Edwards clears back out and Russell pitches to Vanderbilt, creating a two-man action with an empty side. I noted above how effective these actions are. What also must be noted in this counter is that this season, Vanderbilt will be replaced by one of the best roll-men in the NBA in Rudy Gobert in this situation.
Continuing with Horns, the play above is the Wolves executing ‘Horns Ghost Flare’. It’s one of the most popular plays out of Horns in Basketball. KAT ghosts away from a defense that’s playing up and nails a 3. The twist here I like is that Minnesota puts their two best-scoring guards in the corner. This limits the likelihood of help defense and would allow the Wolves to flow into something else pretty easily.
Below is a similar look from Minnesota in a game vs the Warriors.
The Warriors are defending the action relatively aggressively, but Jarred Vanderbilt cuts just before KAT receives the ball. This means the Warriors can’t realistically trap KAT and it also gives him a slight driving lane which ends up in an open corner 3. Vanderbilt is extremely limited offensively but he’s a smart and timely cutter which really matters.
Minnesota also likes to put their guards in the horns action. This removes a big-man defender from the action which can essentially result in poorer interior defense, but it also simply gets their best players in the action and adds versatility.
Russell is frequently involved in the Wolves’ horns action. He receives the pass and as KAT tries to come off the pin-down, Richaun Holmes tries to get ahead of him. KAT immediately cuts backdoor for an easy dunk. This action puts a lot of strain on defenses and weak side help can be difficult as they have so much ground to cover with horns being such a high-up action. Here is what this action looks like if the opposition doesn’t commit to pushing to the 3-point line.
The Wolves run this action at times when KAT isn’t in the game so it’s obviously going to look different as Naz Reid isn’t close to the shooter KAT is.
The Wolves pitch to the guard in the Horns set. Naz Reid sets a flare screen for Anthony Edwards. This creates an advantage for the Wolves and they flow into a pick-and-roll out of this action. Naz’s excellent ability as a roller means that while this set looks different, it still has positive outcomes for the offense. Below might be my favorite look I’ve seen the Wolves get out of this inverted horns set.
Patrick Beverley sets the pin-down screen. Dwight Powell manages to get out to KAT, so the Wolves flow into an inverted pick-and-roll with the guard rolling and the big man handling the ball. This forces Jalen Brunson to be a rim protector which is less than ideal and it makes help defense inevitable. This is just a great illustration of how the Wolves' offense can put teams into situations they’re uncomfortable with.
Wolves run a lot of this action, horns set up with some "twist" concepts... I would personally say even some "snug" concepts.— Glen Willis (@willis_glen) January 20, 2022
Run this quite a bit right now when either DLo or PatBev is out. Even more often when both are out.
Hard for the defensive big to impact the ball. pic.twitter.com/aifnKIBsVA
This play is another thing Minnesota can do from horns. On this occasion they have Reid set a back screen for Jaylen Nowell who then recovers to the 3-point line in twist action. This is all window dressing to get a PNR between Edwards and Naz Reid. Again, help defense is mostly occupied and it’s just really difficult for big men to impact the play.
On the play below, Minnesota again pitches it to Reid. This time the Wolves fake some Chicago action and then flow into a pick-and-roll. Again, the help defenders were occupied by Edwards diving to the rim so no one can really impact the play from a help perspective. It’s such an amazing set.
Though most of the Wolves' stuff out of Horns is very much read and react, they did run this set play out of horns. I’d label it ‘Horns Dive Fist Exit’.
McDaniels starts the play by diving to the rim to try and counter the Warriors’ aggressive defense. He then ‘exits’ the paint off a screen to pop for 3. Whilst this action is happening, Russell and Naz Reid go into a pick-and-roll. As I’ve repeated many a time in this article, this occupies the help defense and means Naz has an easy look to the rim and D-Lo also has a potential McDaniels 3 if he preferred to go down such a route.
The Wolves’ usage of Horns is just extremely diverse and shows the attention to detail of Finch’s staff and the execution by the players. It’s fair to assume that with Gobert and Anderson now in Minnesota that they may go to Horns even more often than they did last year as these two offer rolling, screening and playmaking respectively.
Double Staggers, Cutting, and the little things.
Something Minnesota likes to do is have D-Lo or Edwards hold the ball at the top of the key and just simply bunch up players on either side of the court. They have a lot of intriguing reads about this. It occupies help defenders for the lead ball handler but they can also generate catch-and-shoot three-pointers with relative ease. Below is perhaps the most glaring example of what this concept can do.
With three players bunched up one side, the most likely read is a double stagger screen. This requires the full attention of the Kings and they have to be alert on the backside in case of a back cut to the rim. As all this confusion is happening D-Lo just attacks the rim for an easy scorer. It’s another good way of potentially generating some easier looks to the Rim for D-Lo because he isn’t going to create a tonne of layups from standstill positions, especially if nail help comes.
This is one of my favorite plays of the year from a schematic perspective. The Los Angeles Lakers try and top-lock Beasley, who often came off these wide pin-down screens. So the Wolves flow into a double stagger wheel which eventually flows into a pick-and-pop for KAT. I’ve repeated numerous times throughout this article that previous actions can make pick-and-rolls so much more effective.
Though set plays and mechanized reads are essential for offense, so are quick decisions. Generally, I’d put these down to the player but coaches can, of course, give players a kick in the right direction. The Wolves not only run good sets but they do the little things well off the ball to maximize their sets.
Ant has the option to go for an empty-side pick-and-roll with Reid, but look at the Wolves' other players in that strong stack I noted previously. As the Utah Jazz are trying to communicate to stop the wide pin-down, Taurean Prince darts to the other side of the court for a wide-open 3-pointer. Prince’s off-ball prowess surprised me and was a big part of why he’s been a notable success in Minnesota.
One of the most striking things of the San Antonio Spurs teams of the early 2010s was that while they did run incredible sets, they just always did the little things right. Their players always lift at the right time which is the first step of a lot of the work longtime assistant Chip Engellund did with shooters. Watch Beasley do this here. This just wasn’t something that the Wolves were doing previously. Creating passing angles and simplifying things with the right movement. It genuinely can be that simple.
Beasley definitely had his critics, but his off-ball movement was really important for the Wolves. I love the freelance flare screen he sets on the play below. It generates an open three. It looks simple but as someone who studies offenses, not every team does the little things like this. Not absolutely everything can scheme, the little things can often win out on plays where set plays break down.
I enjoyed this freelance read from McDaniels.
The Dallas Mavericks are defending high on a Reid-Russell action with Porzingis being ‘hidden’ as a weak-side protector. McDaniels recognizes this and steps up as a second screener to get a wide-open pull-up against Porzingis who is almost always in drop coverage.
The reality is that basketball isn’t played on a whiteboard. It’s played by human beings who aren’t going to execute with the precision of the pen ink on the board. This is the time when you see well-coached offensive teams adapt. There is absolutely a valuable debate over whether this is coaching or down to the players as individuals. Due to the fact not every team does the little things, the correct answer is probably a bit of both. The stark reality though is that cutting requires something else to be compromising the defense, you can’t cut from thin air, something else has to take place before the opportunity arises. This is where Finch’s genius shines bright.
Overall, this Wolves offense still, of course, has room to get better. They’ll want to be a top-eight or so unit this year and this is likely because Gobert is a seismic upgrade over Vanderbilt. He’s an elite roller, and trapping KAT could become more difficult as Gobert can seal on the interior.
another example of great Memphis team defense, starting from Jaren Jackson Jr leaving Vanderbilt to trap KAT— Bowser2Bowser (@bowser2bowser) August 1, 2022
But imagine all the high-low passes KAT is gonna make next year when Morant sinks down to guard Gobert instead of Vanderbilt under the basket pic.twitter.com/MqFEtnis3o
Size can absolutely kill and the majority of Minnesota’s concepts are a real fit for big personnel. This offense is light-years ahead of where it was previously. It’s diverse, creative and the team can execute counters well. There’s no more standing around, no more introductory level spacing and concepts. It’s a modern scheme that bends defenses and is the perfect mesh between being hard for the opposition to scout, but not so complex that your players play like robots.