Al Horford, the pin-down screen, and set variations

Daniel Christian —  March 12, 2013 — 1 Comment

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As discussed last week, the Hawks run two high-low sets in order to free Al Horford for some easy baskets: the elbow pick-and-roll and the pin-down-and-slip. These two sets work remarkably well and are usually reserved for late game situations– they are the Hawks’ go to plays, if you will.

But what happens when opposing defenses figure it out? What happens when those defenses crack the code and stop Horford on the role or contain him off the pin-down? How do the Hawks respond and/or use other sets with similar starting patterns to deceive the opposition?

Well, clearly, there are a lot of questions and, as you might imagine, there are also a lot of answers. When the Hawks run these plays, there are actually a bevy of offensive options at their disposal; it just so happens that the preferred option is usually available. But as you’ll see in the video below, when that primary target is unavailable, there are other ways to beat the defense.

The first example we’ll look at occurred in Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia. The Hawks run the Josh Smith-Horford elbow pick-and-roll, only Horford is denied on the role. Jrue Holiday must have watched enough film to know that this play was coming, because while Horford’s man hedged on the screen, Holiday slipped from the perimeter in front of Horford. Now, before I include the whole video, I want to show exactly what that looks like on the court with a picture:

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You can see Smith is double-teamed at the elbow and Holiday has left DeShawn Stevenson (far left corner) to move in front of Horford and disrupt a potential alley-oop. Good for Holiday, that works; there is no alley-oop. Instead, the defense is overloaded in one area of the floor. Because of this rotation, Stevenson is wide open in the corner. Smith slings a perfect cross-court pass to the open Stevenson, and Charles Jenkins (defender closest to Jeff Teague) rotates to contest his shot. Only now, the entire defense is somewhere between the paint and the baseline, and Teague, who is a 38% three-point shooter and a 43% shooter off spot-ups (1.02 points per play, which is pretty good) is suddenly wide open for a three pointer. The result is a 15-point game with two minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

Take a look at the entire play in live action:

That is certainly an example of taking what the defense gives you, and sometimes, the defense will give you your first choice.

In these next two plays, both of which occurred in last Sunday’s game against the Lakers, the Hawks run Kyle Korver off of a Horford pin-down screen and then post Horford up on the block. Knowing that, the Horford pin-down screen can signify one of two things: a high-low or an isolation set. Depending on the matchup, they can be equally effective.

In these two plays, Devin Harris initiates the offense and Horford goes down to set that pin-down screen. Korver comes up, Harris swings Korver the ball. In that time Horford has assumed position in the post, he then receives the ball from Korver, who cuts through the middle of the lane to the opposite side of the court after his pass to allow for the isolation. Suddenly Horford is all by himself on the left side of the court. It’s just him and his defender. Luckily for Al, that defender is Antawn Jamison. Here’s what happens both times:

In the first play, Horford can see that Jamison is angling him towards the basket, likely thinking that Dwight Howard will be there to help. For some reason unbeknownst to me, Howard was too pre-occupied with Johan Petro to be in solid help position, and so Horford takes that lane for an easy layup. In the second video, Jamison has seemingly learned from his mistake and he forces Horford to go into the paint. Horford is still bigger and stronger than Jamison, and this allows him to push his way further into the lane, get in a comfortable position, and turn and fire on a jump-hook.

Isolations are not considered the most effective play in basketball; in fact, they generally carry a connotation linked with inefficiency. That mindset isn’t far from the truth, it’s relatively accurate, actually, but in situations where there is a mismatch or an incapable defender, it is imperative that the offense strike and take advantage of the weak link. For Los Angeles, there seems to be 3 or 4 weak individual defensive links on the floor at a time, so the Hawks chose the one they believed they could exploit the most, and then they exploited it. Simple as that.

What’s particularly interesting about the Lakers game is that for the last Hawks’ offensive play that came up short, Atlanta used Harris as it’s primary ball-handler in a high-low with Josh Smith. When Harris or Teague is the primary ball-handler in a pin-down screen set, it’s usually an isolation. So when Smith went to set the pin-down screen for Korver, the Hawks were trying to fool LA into defending the isolation. The play worked as always, but Smith bobbled the pass and time ran out, so the Hawks lost. Still, an interesting bit from coach Larry Drew when he allows one of his point guards to run that high low, because at the time of the pin-down screen, there is really no way to know which play is coming.

The next few clips are just an amalgamation, sort of hodge-podge collection of variations or successfully run plays.

The first clip, a play from the February 27 game against the Utah Jazz, is another play based around the Horford pin-down screen for Korver. It’s the same idea as the last two against the Lakers, only this time Horford’s defender, Al Jefferson, is giving him plenty of space. So instead of assuming position in the post, he drifts a few feet, and Korver fires him a nice bounce pass for a spot-up jumper.

The last two clips go hand-in-hand: one is a successfully run elbow pick-and-roll between Smith and Horford, and the next is meant to mirror the Philadelphia play from earlier in the post– so a busted pick-and-roll that presents Atlanta with a few different options.

The first one runs smoothly, and I’ve gone over that play before, so I won’t harp on how beautiful it is again. Instead, I’ll focus on the second play.

Jeff Green forces Horford to the opposite side of the paint, preventing an alley-oop. This is near perfect defense from Green, but Horford is still in relatively solid position to score, which speaks to the effectiveness of the play itself. Paul Pierce is forced to rotate over and help on Horford. In doing so, he’s leaving Anthony Tolliver wide-open in the corner for three. So, Horford has a decision to make: either go up for the contested, close-range shot in the paint and hope to convert or draw a foul, or kick it to the open Tolliver (34% three-point shooter, 35% on spot-ups, good for 0.99 points per play). Horford, by the time Pierce has doubled down, has already made up his mind that he’s taking Green. He draws the foul. It’s a successful play, but one that also gave Horford some flexibility and alternatives.

*** Special thanks to HawksHoop’s own Raj Prashad for getting these videos together for me. I requested several clips and he came through with some awesome footage. He probably spent just as much time amassing the clips as I did writing and analyzing the piece. Thanks, Raj. ***

Daniel Christian

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  1. Al Horford and the midrange jumper | Lance Davis - March 14, 2013

    [...] Christian of HawksHoop has a great post about one of the most effective plays in the NBA, the elbow pick-and-roll with Horford and Josh [...]

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