This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
The beauty of watching film is that the film never lies. What it tells, though, depends on what you're looking for.
Whether a new, innovative form of offense, a trend that a team is utilizing, a scouting nugget or some great player tendencies, we can learn so much from keying in on the minutia. Here are five small but significant musings from recent NBA action, all backed up by the beautiful evidence of film.
An Inverted Horns Look in Milwaukee
Mike Budenholzer's motion offense has been mighty successful in the games he's coached for the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo morphed into an MVP within the structure, and the Bucks' combination of shooting at all positions around him—as well as the roster's structural ability to pinpoint mismatches wherever they want—have all contributed to his rise.
Their mismatch-hunting is nowhere more evident than when they'll send a point guard or a shooter—whoever is guarded by the smallest defender—to set a middle ball screen for Giannis. Antetokounmpo is so quick, long and powerful that he can overwhelm the slightest miscommunication or misplaced step, barreling his way to the rim.
Frankly, this is the set the Bucks have called whenever they need a cheap, easy bucket. Whether in close games, during stretches when they're lacking creators or when they want to slow things down, this is Coach Bud's top call. Just check the time and score of when the Bucks run the set called '41 Rub':
Now here's a novel idea: How do the Bucks prepare for these actions in less of a "walk into it" manner?
From a scouting perspective, opponents can see this coming from a mile away. We saw that last year during the Eastern Conference Finals when the Toronto Raptors were ready for such an action and "pre-switched" their littlest defender out of the way so Giannis couldn't find his advantage.
The set works fine in the regular season, as do most anything against the porous Chicago Bulls, (who were featured most frequently in the video above). But NBA scouts and assistants have a long memory and detailed reports; They'll bookmark that Raptors defensive possession and save it for when they face Milwaukee during the postseason. What Coach Budenholzer needs is a counter to flow into this from the rhythm of his offense.
Alas, we may have seen the solution reveal itself against the Bulls as well.
Budenholzer made sure the ball got to Giannis at the top of the key, and the offense flowed into a Horns formation. Typically, Horns is reserved for a ball handler up top, two bigs on the elbows and other wings in the corners. Only this formation was flipped: The guards were at the elbows and the bigs, (who are capable shooters), were festooned in the corners as catch-and-shoot threats.
What a unique look it gave:
I'm bookmarking this and working on it as a counter to their offense. Budenholzer can flow into the same mismatch ball screens, he can space one of the guards out to three, and rim protection is placed in a lose-lose scenario for helping off the corners.
Keep an eye for whether Budenholzer continues to evolve his offense, something he's notoriously stingy with.
Grant Williams the helper
Let's talk about Grant Williams, a guy whose defense I wildly overlooked through the draft process. The Boston Celtics have been using him as a 4 or even small-ball 5 that can switch onto guards and contain the drive. He's quick on his feet, really long and avoids fouling or getting his hand caught in the cookie jar.
That defensive ability is earning Williams his early-season minutes more than his offensive acumen.
Perhaps better than his on-ball defense is how smart and technical he is as a help-side defender. He rotates perfectly and always seems to recognize when he's needed. A master of verticality, Williams can wall up and defend drives by sticking his chest out and watching attackers bounce off like a bumper car. Or he can display excellent timing and spring for some super impressive weak-side blocks:
Note his recognition in the clip against the Phoenix Suns. Not only is he getting there to block the shot, but noticing he can (and must) get to help is a great step for the rookie.
Of course, blocked shots and steals get all the sexy attention. Williams is so solid that some of the defensive impacts he has isn't quantifiable by stats.
Take this example from Wednesday's contest with the Los Angeles Clippers: The Celtics blitzed to get the ball out of Kawhi Leonard's hands, and the screening Montrezl Harrell slipped to the rim. Williams came to the rescue in timely fashion, stood up straight and stopped Harrell's momentum:
This. Is. Textbook. Williams arrives on time, has a sturdy base and is tall to prevent a finish. The Celtics are able to return and settle the ball to prevent a shot attempt that would otherwise have been created by the scramble. Grant is providing real reliability right now, and that'll earn him minutes late in important games.
He's a lot better than I thought...
Davis Bertans-Mo Wagner ball screens
The Washington Wizards run a version of a flowing motion, with screen-the-screener actions turning into ball screens and multiple shooters serving as interchangeable parts. That versatility means unorthodox pieces in unusual places, so big man Davis Bertans becomes an interesting weapon for Scott Brooks. He's darting off screens and wrapping around second-year big Mortiz Wagner looking for shots.
When catch-and-shoots aren't available, Bertans snakes it back into a ball screen with Wagner. I'm not sure if there's a pair of players less likely to be involved in ball screens, but the Wizards are making it work:
Bertans makes this work because he's keenly aware of who he is and doesn't force anything unnatural. These situations will continue to arise so long as the Wizards run him off screens. Considering he was among the most lethal across the NBA a season ago, this isn't an action that will likely disappear. What a unique, unforeseen wrinkle within this offense!
PS: The Wizards are delightfully fun.
They may be among the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, but they have plenty of guys that jack on offense, making for an offensive outburst on any night. They're second in offensive rating and dead last in defensive, by a wide margin. You never know when you'll get a 159-158 thriller like when they played the Houston Rockets, or 140-133 like against the Boston Celtics (albeit both losses). They're just a fun, trigger-happy team of misfits that let it fly.
Nic Claxton, Defensive Whiz Kid
There was a reason Nic Claxton, the 31st pick in the 2019 draft, was described as a "Pascal Siakam-like" prospect in our TBW Draft previews.
The dude is long and freaky fast like Jimmy John's. While the Brooklyn Nets snatched him up and stashed him on their bench, their hand has already been forced by Claxton's exemplary defensive effort and ability. He made his NBA debut against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 8th, and he's played at least twelve minutes in every game since. He's not shooting it well, and only has one offensive rebound since the Blazers game.
But woo, child, this man can defend:
Seriously, guards need to stop trying to mismatch attack him when he switches on the perimeter. Claxton is light on his feet, smart with angles and doesn't go wild trying to attack anything. Yet everyone wants to isolate him and attack, which has been an incredibly low percentage play.
Against teams with two true bigs, Claxton is useful because he has a true matchup but can switch late in clock and bait a team into playing the switch.
That's a battle he wins eight times out of ten:
Claxton is 0-5 from 3-point range, so the pre-draft worries about his offensive impact if not making shots were valid. He's got a ways to go to prove his worth on offense, but he's already demonstrated a savvy use of his natural gifts on the other end.
We may get to the point later in the year where playing DeAndre Jordan over Claxton is indefensible.
Utah's Advance Scouting Pays Off Again
In a previous NBA Film Study column released last week, I wrote about the Memphis Grizzlies tendency to call for Ja Morant backdoor plays out of timeouts, highlighting two specifically.
Over the summer, I also penned a piece about the advance scouting department's ability to help teams defensively prepare for ATO plays, using the Utah Jazz as the posterchild for elite preparation. Nobody takes opponents out of their sets like them.
Well, those two concepts came head-to-head last week. The Grizzlies went to run one of their backdoor sets for Morant in the meeting between the two teams on Friday, November 15th.
They went with a Motion Strong to backdoor look, which is posted below for reference:
Memphis won on a Morant game-winner, but the neck-and-neck battle saw the need for a slim margin for error late in the fourth.
With the Jazz up one, Memphis went to the backdoor set for Morant as a means for getting a quick bucket out of a timeout. Utah was ready, and that's evident in the way Mike Conley dropped to a low defensive position so he could keep Morant in front and take away the possibility of a backdoor cut:
Glad to see the Jazz have been paying attention to their scouting reports! Sure, the Grizz still scored on the play, but the point of scouting a play is to choose who and how the offense takes a shot.
It wasn't Morant, and it wasn't on an unopposed layup from a backdoor cut. These moments matter, particularly in tight games like this.
Leave a Reply.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).