Saturday, January 21, 2012

Timberwolves at Clippers: Minnesota's Offense

Former human professional basketball player and my good friend Kurt Rambis was once the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves. During his time there, the Wolves did not have very much success, which would eventually lead to his firing. One reason was that his players just weren't all that good. Another reason was his offensive style. Rambis wanted to try to implement the renowned "triangle" offense. Unfortunately for Kurt, he did not have the personnel for this. For one, his players weren't designed to run it. The triangle requires big guards, floor spacers, and talented passing big men. He had Jonny Flynn and Al Jefferson (not that Jefferson is bad, but he's more a potent scorer than distributor, Flynn on the other hand is bad). Also, the triangle is insanely complex and you need to know Buddhist teachings and read 14 books that Phil Jackson gives you to understand it. Or something like that.

Anyway, last night I was happy to see a much more logical offensive set for the Wolves. Rick Adelman, preaching some version of the Princeton offense, has done a good job putting Minnesota in the middle of the NBA pack in offensive efficiency when just two years ago they ranked next to last. Here are a couple of sets I saw last night that led to good looks for the Wolves, including their game-winning play. 

This play is set up so Rubio hits the center (in this case Pekovic) at the high post. He then acts like he's going to cut in order to keep his defender close. However, the cut is really a down screen for the forward (here, Derrick Williams). Williams comes around and receives the pass from the high post. Now if the screen that Rubio set is switched, Williams has a size advantage and is already moving towards the basket. This means he can finish or get fouled (which he did). If his defender goes under, he can pull up from around 12 feet for a jumper. Simple, but with the Clippers lack of wing defenders (Randy Foye ended up committing the foul), effective.

The next play presents a few more options. Rubio again brings the ball up and Pekovic is at the elbow. This time Pekovic becomes the down screener for the 2-guard (Ellington in this case). Ellington comes around it and gets a pass from Rubio at the top. Again, the defense if forced to make a choice. If they go under, Ellington can shoot (46.3% from the field), if his defender goes over he can take a dribble and try to get closer to the rim. In the case last night, the Clippers defense completely sold out and both defenders came to him. Ellington was fouled, but was in the process of hitting an open Pekovic. And in case that option isn't there Derrick Williams is streaking in along the baseline to receive a pass as well. This play requires good timing, but most of all a guard who can make decisions. Ellington's assist ratio isn't off the charts spectacular, but he can make good choices without killing you with turnovers.

The Wolves also ran a few looping pick and pops with Luke Ridnour and Kevin Love. Love would set a high screen on the left side of the floor just inside the 3-point line. Ridnour's defender, knowing he can be lethal on a pull-up, went over it. The other Wolves had cleared to the weak side leaving a lot of space for Ridnour to dribble. He would twice have a clear shot along the baseline. He made one (over a leaping DeAndre Jordan), missed the other. Nonetheless, the play is fantastic for a suave pick and roll operator like Ridnour.

Finally, there was the out of bounds play with 1.5 seconds left that gave Kevin Love the game winning look. Ridnour is on the side inbounding. Derrick Williams loops across the set, but this is seemingly a decoy. Then Rubio and Ellington both downscreen Kevin Love's defender. Love is able to flash to the top of the key for an uncontested look. Love goes unguarded because neither Rubio nor Ellington's defender switches off, probably because with a double screen they didn't know whose responsibility it was. Thus was Love's open shot and the game ended in an exciting fashion.

The Wolves still have a way to go before real contention, but it has been exciting to see them actually playing good basketball. With an offensive system that actually fits their personnel no less. 

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