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The play that didn’t quite work for the Hawks

Coach Bud seems to have scrapped this one from the playbook.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes, when a coaching staff draws up a play in a meeting and brings it to the team on the court, it translates well in practice but doesn’t work in a game situation. They’ll run it a few times against different opposition with different personnel, but after a few tries, it’s usually pretty obvious if things aren’t going according to plan: either players forget their part, the defense doesn’t react like it’s supposed to, or any myriad of other reasons why coaches would stop using a particular set.

For the Hawks, they experimented with a set play I call “Horns Split Step” against both Indiana and Utah…and then haven’t run it in the six games since the win over the Jazz on March 20th. Perhaps it was called and was run differently, perhaps the coaching staff tabled it for another year, when the team has different personnel, or perhaps they just haven’t had the right matchup to use it again. Whatever the reason for its disappearance over the past two weeks, it was still an interesting play that capitalized on a lot of the things head coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff utilize across their playbook: catching the defense off guard, using dummy action to disguise the main intent of the play, and striking quickly when the ball reaches its final destination.

The clearest reason I can think of as to why Budenholzer hasn’t called Horns Split Step recently is that none of the three times he did was it run correctly by the team. In two instances the defense blew it up before it could be run with the correct timing and the third time Dewayne Dedmon forgot his role and wasn’t there to set the final ball screen for Dennis Schröder:

The play starts out of Horns, where the ball is in the middle of the floor, two players (usually big men) are at the elbows, and the final two players (usually wings) are in opposite corners. In the above example, the Hawks are playing small with a lineup of Schröder, Tyler Dorsey, Damion Lee, Taurean Prince, and Dedmon on the floor together, making Prince one of the two bigs at the elbows. Schröder enters the ball to Dedmon on the left elbow to begin the action before setting a screen for Prince that resembles the split cuts made famous by the Golden State Warriors. In other variations of the play, Schröder might fake the screen and cut to the rim before the defense can react, or Prince could cut backdoor if the defense anticipates him going over the screen.

Once the ball is pitched back to Prince, he’s either looking for his own shot immediately or, as he does in the above clip, using a stacked ball screen from both Dedmon and Schröder. Dedmon rolls off the ball screen; Schröder pops to the top of the key. Prince has no intention of turning the corner and getting to the rim, though, as he goes to the wing and hands the ball to Dorsey, who lifts out of the left corner. Dorsey hits Schröder without taking a dribble, but this is where the play breaks down—Dedmon wasn’t supposed to fully roll to the rim and was instead supposed to set the step-up screen for Schröder. A step-up screen is where a player will receive the ball from one side and immediately run a pick-and-roll on the other. With the right timing, the ball handler’s defender won’t have time to react and it will break down the defense. With the wrong timing, it just turns into a regular pick-and-roll, which is fine but not quite what the Hawks were going for. As soon as Schröder receives the ball back from Dorsey, you can see him slap at it to indicate his frustration with Dedmon for not running the play correctly.

The Hawks tried it again in the fourth quarter, but Ricky Rubio was aware of what was coming and denied Schröder the ball at the top, throwing off the timing:

Andrew White, who was playing Dorsey’s role in the above clip, had to give the ball back to Muscala (playing the Dedmon role), rather than hitting Schröder, because of Rubio’s recognition of the play and his ability to jump into the passing lane, making it unavailable to White. Once again, Schröder scored, but the play wasn’t run quite as well as it could have been.

Against Indiana earlier in March, the Hawks weren’t able to execute the handoff as well as they needed to, which once again threw off the timing of the play:

Kent Bazemore lifted out of the corner to get the handoff, but Victor Oladipo made that difficult for him, which delayed the pass back to Schröder. As soon as the ball did get to Schröder, John Collins was there with the step-up screen and the point guard was able to find his big man on the roll for a layup.

A play that requires as much precise timing as Horns Split Step looks great on paper and in practice, but when defenses are either keyed in on it (as Rubio was) or execute their defensive principles to blow up another part of it (as Oladipo did), it throws everything off. Still, just because the Hawks seem to have nixed this play from their playbook (at least for the moment), don’t be surprised if it comes back in the future, when they have different personnel or are playing a team with lazier defenders who will allow the Hawks to get through their actions on the perimeter without much resistance.