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Atlanta Hawks playbook: Chest Split Down

Lloyd Pierce and company get creative.

NBA: Preseason-New Orleans Pelicans at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The best coaches all steal ideas and plays from one another. Once there’s film of a successful play being run consistently by one team, it’s not long before half the league has adopted and integrated it into their playbooks.

Just ask Billy Donovan, who pioneered a play based on the Hawk cut at the beginning of last season and saw no fewer than 20 other teams, including Atlanta, run some version of it before the end of the year. Just ask the Spanish national team, which pioneered the “back screen pick-and-roll” that has lit the NBA on fire over the last few years and is now run by almost every team in some capacity, to the point that the set more aptly called “Spain pick-and-roll”.

Other times, it’s not as obvious from where the origin of certain actions come, as coaches will put their own twist on certain tactical ideas to better suit their own personnel. One such play for the Atlanta Hawks is something I’m calling “Chest Split Down,” though, like always, I imagine Lloyd Pierce and his staff have a much better name for it that’s both shorter and doesn’t give away everything that’s about to happen when he calls it from the sideline.

Chest series is a concept that’s been around basketball for quite some time but rose to prominence during the Boston Celtics’ run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Operating without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, the Celtics were low on high-level initiators and turned to rookie Jayson Tatum in one of their most frequently used sets to both isolate him one-on-one against worse defenders or get the defense moving before Tatum ran a pick-and-roll with either Al Horford or Aron Baynes. Pierce got a close view of Tatum’s abilities in Boston’s Chest series when the Philadelphia 76ers, where Pierce worked as a defensive coordinator before coming to Atlanta, were unable to solve it in their playoff series earlier this calendar year.

Split cuts are a staple of the Triangle offense, which has seen a resurgence among teams with multiple high-end three-point shooters in recent years. Most famously, the Golden State Warriors use split cuts extensively, running two of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant together before breaking in different directions, making it almost impossible for the defense to keep up.

No two split cuts are ever the same and it’s often not clear to anybody, including the offensive players themselves, where they’ll end up when the play begins. It’s all about reading and reacting to what the defense gives them and relying on the player holding the ball to make the correct read and find the open man. Ever since the Warriors began their dynastic run in 2014-15, split cuts have invaded playbooks all over the league – I would be surprised if there was a single team out there that didn’t have some sort of split cuts play or concept in their offensive playbook.

In Chest Split Down, the Hawks bring these ideas together in order to create an open shot in the corner for Taurean Prince or Trae Young.

The play begins in a traditional Horns/Chest formation, with two players in the corners, two around the free throw line or elbow area, and the point guard bringing the ball up in the middle of the floor. Vince Carter sets a screen for Taurean Prince to exit out toward the left wing:

Even after just one simple action, there’s plenty of options for the Hawks – Prince can catch on the wing and go to work against his defender or shoot an open three, Young and Carter can run a quick pick-and-roll with the defense occupied by Prince, or Young can throw the ball to Carter at the elbow. In this instance, Miami’s Derrick Jones Jr. sticks with Prince through Carter’s screen, so Young hits Carter at the elbow and immediately moves toward Prince to come together for the split cuts.

Once two shooters come together in split cut action, it’s pretty much anything goes. Each player can set a screen for the other, each player can fake a screen and slip to the basket, each player can curl around Carter for a handoff, or any number of other options. There are plenty of reasons why Golden State has been so effective using split cuts throughout their reign at the top of the league’s hierarchy over the last four years, but the unpredictability of the action certainly plays a massive part in why they’re able to be as successful as they have been.

On this particular play, Prince sets a flare screen for Young and dives to the rim, but Young rejects it and goes over toward Carter to get a handoff. This is where the deception comes in – Jones sees that Young rejected the screen and is running a possible handoff-and-roll with Carter. Given that he’s already in the paint and Prince is jogging toward the weak-side corner, it’s going to be Jones’ responsibility to help in the paint if Carter rolls to the rim.

Once Jones loses track of Prince, the rest is easy – Len sets the screen on the scrambling Jones and Prince can set himself up for a wide-open shot:

Watch it again at full speed:

There are plenty of other actions the Hawks can run out of their Chest series, a lot of which I expect to see throughout the season. As Prince develops as a ball handler and passer, there will be more options for Atlanta to get him the ball and run a bit of the offense through him, utilizing Young’s gravity off the ball to open avenues to the rim for Prince and the rest of the Hawks.