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Explain One Play: Harrison Barnes Tries To Be Not "Terrible"

Video breakdown of plays from the Warriors win against the Nuggets on Nov 20, 2015.

Do not taunt Happy Black Falcon
Do not taunt Happy Black Falcon
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Thank goodness the Denver Nuggets-Golden State Warriors game was a not very close one.

For the last six games, we've felt obligated to break down a game sealing play. Today, we talk about something more basic, which is a set the Warriors run to get Harrison Barnes (and Shaun Livingston) shots.  Barnes says that last year he was "terrible" at this play, so it's interesting that the Warriors are still running it for him.

The Seven Seconds Or Less Suns

To set up this play, we have to go WAY back.

Mike D'Antoni designed the thrilling offense from the mid-2000's Phoenix Suns, quarterbacked by current Warriors coach Steve Nash. The most beautiful offense of its time, it has become known by the name "7 Seconds Or Less" from the title of the book by Jack McCallum which followed the 2005-2006 Suns season. I'm going to call it 7SOL for the rest of this piece.

The most famous principle was that the offense should attack quickly before defenses were set and ideally get an early offense shot in the first seven seconds of the shot clock.

This offense was widely regarded as gimmicky and unable to win playoff-level basketball (all the way until June 2015, when the Warriors lucked into a title). The D'Antoni Suns sadly never got to the NBA Finals, with their closest chance being derailed by some Spurs thuggery and foolish NBA league suspensions. (Yes, those nice guy Spurs).

Steve Kerr was D'Antoni's General Manager and Alvin Gentry was D'Antoni's assistant coach, so it's not surprising that the Warriors offense has incorporated pieces from D'Antoni's work. The most obvious pieces from Seven Seconds or Less are...
  • ...the early offense formations (drag screens)
  • ...Pistol/21 action (1 fires a pass to 2 on the wing who immediately gets a screen)
  • ...and the Delay series (looks like a post-cross where the "post" is on the perimeter)
  • indirectly many pieces through the Spurs Offense
Hopefully we'll talk about these plays sometime later this season. Today, we talk about one of the calmer plays adopted from the 7SOL Suns, called Elbow Get.  I'll just show you two blurry examples, and we can reflect afterwards.

The starting formation is this: a point guard (Steve Nash) brings up the ball. Two small shooters stand in the corners. Two big players stand at each elbow.  The guard throws the ball to one of the elbow bigs.

The rest of the league calls this formation HORNS (we just covered it a couple of weeks back). D'Antoni called HORNS sets "Elbow" sets. Most HORNS sets involve the guard going off to screen for one of the smalls, or something elaborate. This is a particularly simple version of the play where one elbow big sets a cross-screen for the big with the ball.  Everyone else stands on the perimeter to space, so their defenders can't help defend the action. This is a quick hitting play!

The Question of Harrison Barnes

So back in the present, we have Harrison Barnes. For all of his good and promising qualities, he hasn't yet shown much skill creating shots for himself or others. Here are some key quotes from an awesome Zach Lowe article from the now-dead Grantland.
"Everyone asks, ‘Someone is really going to pay all that for a guy who can’t run the pick-and-roll?’" Barnes tells Grantland, laughing. "But I don’t worry much. I’m confident I will get better at it."

Barnes just hasn’t looked comfortable driving with the ball, and he knows it. He gets tunnel vision, forcing up shots when easy passes are available. He doesn’t have the fluid change of pace the best ball handlers use to prod defenses open. He sometimes spooks at the first sight of a help defender, as if he’s afraid to make mistakes. He doesn’t appear to feel the game. What happens when defenses trap him against the pick-and-roll? Or go under picks, daring him to can off-the-dribble 3s?

The Warriors gave Barnes a bunch of chances at little elbow pick-and-rolls when he slid to power forward, and they too often went nowhere. "I’m terrible at that play," Barnes says, laughing. "Luke Walton [a Golden State assistant] and I literally joke about how bad I am at it."
And here is the "elbow pick and roll" that he's so terrible at.

Do you recognize the play?  Yes, it's Elbow Get out of HORNS from above.  It's hard to second-guess players on replay, but it looks like the Bogut screen gets Barnes a step of separation and Bogut's defender hedges to contain a Barnes drive. Probably Barnes's ideal play is to see the big is sagging a little, and to either drive past the big and turn the corner, or to go up for a midrange jump shot. Instead, Barnes surveys the situation and his defender catches up.

Again With Feeling

But the Warriors are a stubborn bunch, and here from the Nuggets game, we have this play which may start strangely, but should be recognizable by the end.

Yes, it ends up as Elbow Get out of HORNS. Barnes gets a nice jumper out of this, but it isn't easy.

Festus Ezeli's unimpressive screen only gets Barnes a quarter-step of room, so he has to decisively drive to create space for a pull-up jump shot. He does, and hits it. It's a good sign that he made a decision quickly and assertively, unlike in the previous clip.

It doesn't help that Barnes often runs this play with the bench, which has had trouble with spacing in the past.  In this case, you can rewatch the play and see how Shaun Livingston tries to get his defender to follow him to the right corner and out of Barnes's way. His defender does not respect Shaun's jumper. He lingers at the edge of the lane to discourage Barnes from driving.

Disguising HORNS

The other thing to notice is to contrast this play with the 7SOL original version above. Do you notice the difference?  (Go look again if it's not obvious.)

The 7SOL version begins with the team just walking up into HORNS formation and feeding the elbow big.  But this play is famous and widely used now, so it could use with a little bit of misdirection.

The Warriors begin the play by lining up three across at the top and swinging the ball from one side to the other and back to the middle.  This is the standard standard start for a whole playbook of plays in the Spurs playbook called "Motion Strong".  You can see how the Warriors use this beginning to flow into other plays, for instance this previous Explain One Play, which I'm embedding here for your convenience.

So in the current Warriors Elbow Get, they flow into a set for Harrison Barnes by starting it in the same format as Motion Strong.

HORNS with surprise Shaun Livingston

To show the Warriors are serious about the deception, here is a play the Warriors ran just before the Barnes Elbow Get. You'll see the play starts very similarly: Three men across the top, passing the ball across, then back again. Meanwhile the team gets into HORNS, two bigs at the elbows, two smalls in the corners.  The ball is fed to Barnes at the elbow again. But instead of getting a cross-screen from Ezeli, the following happens.

You can see that in this variation, the left corner man clears out and Shaun Livingston gets the ball with room to work on the left side, with a pick available to him. In this case, he gets a little pick and roll. In many other cases, Livingston will post up on the low left block and go to work.  This is one of the main ways that the Warriors get plays for Shaun Livingston.

Final Thoughts

This little play goes by quick in the game, but it's connected to a number of interesting issues:
  • the history with the 7 Seconds Or Less offense
  • the question of Barnes creating offense
  • the question of how to involve Shaun Livingston in the offense
  • the ways the Warriors try to begin different plays with the same look to confuse the defense
I think the Warriors are still searching for ways to get reliable offense out of the bench, and these two plays are part of their current answer.


The Explain One Play Series So Far


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