The most unstoppable play in the NBA?

Daniel Christian —  March 5, 2013

Indiana Pacers v Atlanta Hawks

Josh Smith and Al Horford have developed an incredible on-court synergy that has produced some of the most well-executed plays of the NBA season. Their coupled understanding of each other’s tendencies paired with coach Larry Drew’s knack for yielding nearly flawless plays out of timeouts has created possibly the most unstoppable pair of sets in the NBA: the Josh Smith-Al Horford high-lows.

The way in which the Hawks initiate these high-lows is brilliant: one is simply an elbow pick-and-roll, while the other uses Kyle Korver or another three-point shooting threat as a decoy coming off a pin-down screen.

The reason the first of those mentioned sets works so well (Smith-Horford elbow p-n-r), as you’ll see in some subsequent videos, is that it forces the defense to hedge on the screen for a split second. It starts with both Horford and Smith in the high post, and Horford goes to set a screen on Smith’s defender. Horford knows the hedge is coming and that it’s essential to any sort of defensive rotation, so instead of setting a firm pick and rolling, he sets the pick, lets the defender hedge a little early, and then slips before anyone is really prepared for him to do so; essentially, it’s more of a pick-and-slip than a pick-and-roll.

Mike Prada, founder of SBNation blog Bullets Forever, noted that “the Smith/Horford elbow pick and roll is one of the league’s five most unstoppable plays” Sunday night via twitter. While that tweet may have been a bit reactionary, it’s probably equally as true. In all of the following clips you’ll notice that this play is almost exclusively run in the final five minutes of winnable games, mainly because Drew wants to save his best stuff for the right and most opportune moments. He keeps this play in his back pocket throughout the game and signals for it on the possession when the Hawks most need a bucket. As you’ll see, they get what they want just about every time.

Here’s the first example from Friday night’s game in Phoenix. Horford moves up to the high-post opposite to Smith and sets the screen with enough room for Markieff Morris to think he can easily fight through. Jermaine O’Neal, who is guarding Horford, immediately hedges so Morris can have enough time to recover on Smith. The problem is, Horford already slipped into the paint unguarded. Result? Alley-oop.

Take a look for yourself:

The Hawks did the same thing here against the Knicks, only this time Amare Stoudemire (guarding Smith) and 2011-2012 Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler (guarding Horford) were the victims:

Just so you can look at how screwed the defense really is, I’ve included this wonderful picture of Al Horford slipping into the paint from the very play above:

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 12.49.12 PM

As you can see, Stoudemire went over the screen and Chandler took one step up to help. Horford is behind both of them at this point and neither are in any sort of position to recover.

The spacing on the perimeter is also key here. The Hawks flanked the middle of the floor with two wings in the corners, and it just so happened that on this night DeShawn Stevenson (far right) had made four of six three pointers. So Carmelo Anthony (also far right) isn’t in any position to rotate and help because Atlanta’s three-point shooting is forcing him to cover the perimeter. Everything happens so fast that it’s nearly impossible to stop.

The second set Atlanta often runs to produce a high-low is one in which Korver cuts deep into the middle of the paint, almost as if he’s about to go to the opposite corner and shift the offense into a Horford isolation play. Instead, he plants in the middle of the lane and v-cuts back to the perimeter off of a pin-down screen from Horford. Dwight Howard sees the play developing here and likely thinks that Korver will be open on the perimeter. He steps up, but keeps a hand on Horford while setting his eyes on Korver. Horford once again slips into the open space where Smith hits him for a dunk.

In the picture below, you can see Horford begin to slip into the paint, but more importantly you can see that Howard is looking at Korver. Korver’s exceptional catch-and-shoot capabilities force Howard to at least acknowledge that he might be breaking out to the wing for an open-three. In that split second, Horford has slipped to the hoop and is wide open; and if you notice, the pass is already on its way.

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 6.51.02 PM

In this example, Smith, Korver, and Horford give the Utah Jazz the business. Take a look at Horford and Korver fooling Al Jefferson and Gordon Hayward with the exact same play:

These four examples of the high-low sets are far from their only occurrences. The Hawks run both of these plays on almost a nightly basis, and it’s usually coming in the most important stretch of the game. Larry Drew has often been the subject of a few over-zealous criticisms from Hawks fans and bloggers alike, but his weaknesses as a coach don’t fall anywhere in the realm of play calling; in fact, he’s a master of the whiteboard.

Don’t believe me? Watch another Al Horford-Josh Smith high-low and tell me otherwise.

Daniel Christian


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Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Al Horford, the pin-down screen, and set variations | HawksHoop - March 12, 2013

    […] 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. […]