Chris Finch teased some of his offensive wizardry last season after taking over for Ryan Saunders, but just how creative could things get this upcoming season? Let’s discuss.
The Minnesota Timberwolves made a mid-season head coaching change last season, and we were teased with a sampling of the new Chris Finch offense. Despite only having half of a shortened season with COVID protocols that restricted practice and meeting availability, Finch still managed to implement enough of an offensive change to excite fans.
When the coaching change happened, I wrote about some of the changes we could expect (hope) to see, primarily Karl-Anthony Towns being used as more of an initiator. As the season progressed, Finch and the Timberwolves slowly implemented various sets that allowed for creation in all three levels of the floor and better utilization of their stars.
Not to toot my own horn but… toot toot. Let’s quickly segue away from that awkward self-indulgence and dive into the offense that Finch teased us with towards the end of last season.
None of these offensive sets are revolutionary. In fact, they’ve been floating around basketball for ages, constantly being revamped, improved, and flat-out copied. When you’re at a wedding, and the waiters are walking around with crab puffs, sausage rolls, and bruschetta, you don’t think, “psh look at these simpletons serving good food that people like.” No. Instead, you position yourself at the high-top closest to the kitchen doors and constantly salivate while sipping on your fourth glass of wine, wondering, “ugh, when are they coming out with more?”
I know, I know — there’s nothing sexier and more exciting than reading the header “Post-Ups” in a piece about exciting new offensive sets. The Timberwolves have one of the best post scorers in the league, and they will use him there. However, I’m more interested in how the Timberwolves used Towns as a facilitator out of the post. In the past, when Towns has posted up, we’ve seen a tremendous amount standing, watching, and admiring. Under Finch, those lazy tendencies were widely eliminated. Instead, teammates actively cut off Towns’ post-ups to create confusion among defenders and open scoring opportunities.
The main principle of cutting off Towns’ post-ups was to fill vacated space. As one player cuts, another should slide into that space.
As Towns receives the ball, the defense is wholly keyed in on him. The weak side block defender has shaded into the lane, forcing Jaden McDaniels’ defender to drop down to the opposite block. Anthony Edwards begins to drift towards the middle to give Towns more space, and Ricky Rubio initiates the action by cutting through the lane from the opposite wing. Rubio’s defender stays with him, and the weakside defenders recover to their assignments while McDaniels rotates to the spot Rubio just cut from.
Without hesitation, McDaniels makes the exact same cut Rubio just made, which clears out the weakside wing. In the spirit of off-ball movement and filling vacated space, Edwards slides into the space left by McDaniels. Towns spots John Wall ball-watching and kicks out to Edwards for a wide-open three.
In the previous video, the defense was allowed to shade on their weak side rotations instead of fully committing to a double team because Jarred Vanderbilt was in the game and presented zero shooting threat. Vanderbilt was on the block, so the weakside defender could make a similar impact by shading towards Towns without fully committing to the double. The Timberwolves prefer to play a five-out system, which will help open the floor for cutting lanes and force the defense into more deliberate decisions.
Here, we see how the five-out system is a positive boon to Towns’ post-ups. The Timberwolves run essentially the exact same play. This time, however, Naz Reid is positioned in the opposite corner instead of at the block. This positioning spreads the defense more and forces Ivica Zubac to commit more to a decision. If he stays on the opposite block, he takes away the passing lane to Reid but leaves his teammate on an island to get cooked by Towns.
In the earlier video, we saw the defender set up camp in the lane, but Zubac would (should) be called for a three-second violation since he wouldn’t be close enough to anyone. Zubac chooses door number three, which entails a full-on double team of Towns. With the size of both on-ball defenders combined with the prowling of Kawhi Leonard on the weak side, the Clippers should feel confident in their decision to force the ball out of Towns’ hands.
As we saw before, Rubio initiates the action with a cut that draws the attention of Leonard. Rubio continues his movement through the lane, which drags Leonard that extra few feet, leaving the lane unattended. Edwards cuts into the recently vacated lane instead of drifting to the open spot on the wing as we saw before. Towns takes one dribble to change the angle before feeding Edwards for the easy dunk.
The post-up has become antiquated in many circles of coaching and fandom. However, it can be a critical area to attack from if appropriately used. Towns will continue to post-up whether he gets mismatches or not because he is that good of a scorer from down there. Instead of using post-ups in the traditional fashion, though, the Timberwolves have the options to use it as a spot to initiate the offense. With their outside shooting and athleticism, the Timberwolves can use one of the league’s best passing bigs to initiate the offense in a creative way from the post.
The terms Chicago or Miami have likely come up in any X’s and O’s pieces you’ve read, depending on who you read or follow. Chicago and Miami are two almost identical sets. Chicago begins with a player in the corner who receives a pin-down screen into a dribble-handoff (DHO). Miami is the same, but the DHO comes first, followed by the screen.
The crux of these actions is to get a dynamic wing the ball in motion going towards the middle of the floor. Ideally, this wing can shoot or facilitate after creating an advantage by coming off two screens. In the playoffs, we saw the Phoenix Suns use this relentlessly to create space for Devin Booker, and the Utah Jazz consistently ran if for their myriad of intelligent wings.
As the season progressed, we saw the Timberwolves slowly implement more of this into their offense both as a half-court set and as an out-of-bounds play. We saw this set at its most productive when run for Edwards. In theory, it can be run for anyone, but it was an excellent device Finch used to get Edwards rolling. It helped curtail his isolation, pull-up tendencies by forcing him into motion and to attack space.
Here, the Timberwolves use Towns as the offensive initiator while Rubio sets a pin-down screen for Edwards. As Edwards comes off the screen, he makes a beautiful read. Instead of going for the DHO, Edwards cuts towards the lane because he knows his defender went over the screen, so he can’t cut off Edwards’s path, and he sees that Rubio’s defender isn’t in a position to deter a drive either. Towns makes the same read and shovels the ball to Edwards for the layup.
This time, the Timberwolves put Edwards into Chicago straight out of an inbounds pass. The Kings decide to switch the DHO, but the defender who switches on Edwards is too aggressive with his hedge. Edwards has the awareness, skill, and athleticism to quickly spin back against the hedge and split the defenders using the massive gap created. Edwards now has a free runway to the rim, where he proceeds to execute one of many memorable dunks.
The Pistol action involves a five-out system with a guard who brings the ball up one side of the floor. Typically, as the ball-handler approaches the wing, he receives a back-screen from his teammate, who then runs off a cross-screen set by the center at the top of the arc. The simplest way to understand Pistol is to think of it as a three-man action on one wing with a series of ball screens that flow into off-ball screens while the other two players are set up on the weakside. I promise the video will help.
Having three dominant on-ball scorers in Towns, Edwards, and D’Angelo Russell can be tricky to navigate. However, by consistently using actions involving at least three players (like we saw with Chicago), there will be many scoring opportunities.
Here, we see the Timberwolves run a Pistol set with Russell, Towns, and Josh Okogie. The play starts with Okogie slipping the screen he sets for Russell (it’s kind of hard to see, but I promise it happened). The Heat decide to double Russell while Okogie slips to the rim. Okogie’s slip forces Bam Adebayo to go with him momentarily. Given Towns’ shooting prowess, though, Adebayo has to quickly recover to not surrender an open three.
Towns immediately finds Okogie in the dunker spot while Duncan Robinson scrambles to recover, and Jimmy Butler attempts to deny the layup while also deterring the skip pass to Edwards in the corner. Okogie fakes the skip, which gets Butler to jump, and then attacks against Robinson’s momentum to get a more favorable position in the middle of the court. Edwards, now wholly left alone, times his cut for the easy layup.
The Pistol action is a great way to pressure a defense to be perfect with their rotations. If they double the initial screen, then Towns’ defender must choose between switching to the roller or leaving Towns open on the arc. If the defense doesn’t double, then the Timberwolves seamlessly roll into a Russell/Towns pick-and-roll, which presents a new slew of issues. As long as the Timberwolves are focused and making quick decisions, there are many ways to exploit each defensive rotation despite how correct or timely it may be.
The final multi-player action the Timberwolves hinted at using was Weak. Weak begins with the point guard bringing the ball up one side of the floor with players positioned on the strong side block, both wings, and the top of the arc. After crossing half-court, the point guard passes to this teammate on the strongside wing and then cuts across the free-throw line to the opposite wing while the weakside wing sets a backscreen for the player on the block. The ball then rotates back to the point guard, and the player at the top of the arc goes to set a pin-down for the wing who had previously set a back screen on the block. Again, it makes more sense with video, but it is another action that forces players to move, screen, think, and react.
Given the Timberwolves’ desire to spread the floor, they have slightly modified the Weak action to further clear out the paint. Instead of setting a screen for Okogie (who is positioned in the corner instead of the block), Edwards sets a backscreen for Towns. Rubio immediately passes to Towns and then relocates to the opposite wing. The ball swings back to Rubio, and Towns attracts significant attention with his cut. Meanwhile, McDaniels sets a pin-down screen for Edwards, who is left wide-open for three.
In half of a season with limited practice, Chris Finch has already given the Timberwolves their most creative offense in ages. The scoring prowess of Towns, Russell, and Edwards combined with the off-ball capabilities of McDaniels, Malik Beasley, and Taurean Prince should spearhead one of the league’s best offenses this season. The talent is overwhelming, and the coaching staff is clearly the most creative the Timberwolves have had since they drafted Towns. The long stretches of possessions containing one or fewer passes should be a thing of the past.
There are no more excuses for lazy execution because we’ve seen that the Minnesota Timberwolves’ offense can operate as one of the best in the league.
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