This article is a facsimile of an earlier version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Watch the NBA long enough and many of the sets start to look mighty similar.
After all, any sport at the highest level is a copycat league where coaches steal great concepts from each other. In a league that puts such a high emphasis on scouting and knowing the plays coming on the next possession, very little occurs on an NBA basketball court that is a genuine surprise to those well-informed and well-studied coaches.
Nonetheless, certain teams get to their patented plays with success despite the level of scouting. Whether due to sleight of hand, similarity to other sets in the playbook or simple brilliance, some coaches have one play they will pull out of a hat when they need a basket. Here’s how some of the most common ones work:
Dallas Mavericks - Circle Lob
This is not a new play or revelation for the Mavericks. They've been running this for years, usually as a quick counter to some of their Pistol and their Circle actions.
The set is a brilliant counter to the common “21” or “Pistol” sets, which most teams have run since D’Antoni’s Suns achieved great success with the action. “21” sees three players tight to the sideline engaged in a quick pitch to a flare screen or ball screen, among numerous actions. The three defenders involved must be tight to their man, with several counters, cuts and screens occurring out of the formation.
Key to the action that leads to the lob is the two players not involved in a typical sideline pitch. One cuts along the baseline to the ball-side corner, taking his defender with him and clearing out any back-side help at the rim. The second is a shooter, and usually, one who has hit a few shots before the play is being run, standing near the top of the key. The higher he is and close enough to the ball that his man must stay tight on him, the more open the lob is.
The effect of this Dallas Mavericks lob set is similar to watching a car crash occur. Coaches realize as soon as the handoff and curl at the elbow occurs that the lane is wide open. Only one thing can follow: a lob to the rim. Some assistant is standing and shouting “LOB, LOB!” at his players, watching the play develop in slow motion. Yet no one can respond fast enough. Listen to the assistants for the Denver Nuggets screaming in futile frustration:
Rick Carlisle is as unheralded a sure-fire Hall of Fame coach as has ever been. How he reinvents his schemes while keeping certain imprints of his style on everything is a masterclass in evolving on the job. The success his Mavericks are having this season, and the success of Luka Doncic is no accident. Carlisle is as good as it gets from a tactical perspective.
Boston Celtics - Horns Flex Backdoor
This one is a little simpler because it is a natural counter to a set Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics have been running since he took over as a coach. A back screen at the elbow from a big for a guard, followed by the big man jumping to the top of the key and catching a reversal pass, has long triggered a Flex continuity that the Celtics have diced opponents from.
Watch their natural Flex continuity with a counter called "43", that sees the ball reverse to the man in the corner:
Of course, each team has built-in counters to the actions they run most frequently, and the backdoor out of the flex formation is a natural for Stevens from the corner. What makes this action so effective is the Celtics frequently use the same formation for other plays.
There's brilliance in identifying the backdoor’s availability. Stevens leverages this against well-scouted teams that may have jumped to prevent a full reversal so the Celtics cannot run their "43" action.
For a backdoor play from a corner to be successful, one of two things needs to happen: a defender must be asleep, or he must be instructed to play tight coverage and deny that player. Stevens is able to shine in these moments by identifying not only a defender that is a backdoor candidate, but trusting his instincts that the opposing coach will not switch to a different coverage out of the timeout.
Getting beat on a backdoor set seems like such an insult to an individual defender. Through many levels of basketball, we chide those who give up layups or dunks from rogue overplays, calling them undisciplined or inattentive. At a level of basketball where the three-point shot is so frequent and important, (and offenses are so strong at sucking defenders away from the paint), it is almost surprising that backdoors are not more frequently attempted.
There’s always room to humiliate one defender while occupying the other four elsewhere.
Raptors & Pistons - Fake DHO Keeper
Winning a game on a set once is a blessing. Winning on it twice is pure brilliance.
Dwane Casey has run the same set twice, in two different situations with two different teams, to get his big man a bucket at the rim late in games. And while we often consider ATO plays most frequently while the game is on the line, Casey has only one highly successful set he can go to over and over.
Somehow it still works.
Perhaps what gets Casey his open looks out of this action is the changing false movement beforehand. In each of the two clips shown, there is separate movement from each team. The Pistons ran a four-man stack with curled staggers and other movements to disguise the impending fake handoff. The Raptors had Valanciunas flash from the opposite elbow after a screening action.
The fake handoff has been run in a number of sets to get dribble penetration into the lane. Defenders are hypersensitive to the action a team is running late in games, keying in on numerous tendencies, plays or playmakers. Casey designs this set so that all eyes of the defense are on the man that appears to be sprinting into a dribble handoff.
That action is a ruse, and before the defense can rotate to the rim, it is too late. A quick first step and one hard bounce leads Blake Griffin or (formerly) Jonas Valanciunas to the rim, and there’s nowhere else to help.
ATO scouting is a large part of the game, and some staffs succeed more than others at anticipating and taking away their opponent tendencies. But there are also coaches who succeed at pulling out an "Old Faithful play" when they need a bucket, knowing the opportune moment to spring it on an opponent with the right ingredients to make it successful.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).