As the Thunder clawed their way back late in the fourth quarter of Monday’s game against the Nuggets, one fellow writer leaned over and said simply, “How do you stop that?”
When you’re talking about the Thunder, the that could’ve been any number of things, like Russell Westbrook attacking at full speed, Kevin Durant in general or a pick-and-roll combo with both participating. But the that he was referring to was a very common set almost every team runs called “Horns.” Because for the Thunder, Horns isn’t just any setpiece offensive play. It’s something that can potentially be extremely destructive on opposing defenses because of everything it incorporates, namely being the Thunder’s three best players.
Here’s how Horns works: point guard at the top of the key, two bigs come up on both sides of the elbows with the two remaining players stationed in the corners.
The point guard can choose which big he wants to initiate the set with and from there, it kind of becomes a read and react type of thing. The point guard can initiate by passing it to one of his bigs at the elbow and then just cut through and set a screen on the weak side, away from the ball. The Thunder run kind of a variation of this sometimes in crunchtime, where Westbrook hands off to the wing then sets a downscreen on KD’s man to try and free him at the free throw line extended. That set isn’t Horns, but it’s a general idea to that first option out of it.
(Another thing the Thunder do out of Horns: the slip play. Westbrook drops to Perk, Ibaka starts on the low block and Westbrook goes to set a screen on KD’s man on the wing, but slips the screen and Perk hits him for a layup.)
Getting the ball to the high post there, especially in Durant’s hands, opens up a lot of possibilities. The Heat love to use Horns to get LeBron the ball in workable situations like that. You can pivot and have the entire floor in front of you with lots of space and options. KD could do similar things, isolating on his man for a jumper, driving his man or passing out.
That’s kind of the traditional way to execute Horns, though. Drop off to a big, screen weakside, get parts moving and cutting. But what the Thunder did, and did a lot against the Nuggets on Monday, was just let Horns be the blank canvas to running the offense the way Scott Brooks always has preferred to: Let Russ and KD (and sometimes Serge) be awesome.
They ran Horns, by my count, five times in the final four minutes, producing a couple very good looks from 3 for Durant, one clean midrange look for Westbrook, a layup for Ibaka and two free throws for KD. The success rate wasn’t necessarily there against Denver in terms of producing actual points, but the opportunities it created were. You can live with those kind of open looks for Durant, and Westbrook has proven he can knock down from midrange.
The first Horns action late opened up the layup from Ibaka as Westbrook elected to use his screen with the big man rolling to the rim. But look at what Westbrook could’ve done:
There’s Jackson, wide open for a kick out to the corner because Lawson helped off so much on Ibaka’s roll.
The second set Westbrook again went left to a pick-and-roll with Ibaka. The Nuggets, trying to adjust and prevent another easy Ibaka roll to the rim, overcompensate as Wilson Chandler peeks in for a split second, leaving Westbrook the option to drop it back to KD for a good look at 3.
Durant could’ve even made an extra pass to Jackson in the corner or attacked Chandler off the dribble.
Which, actually, is precisely what he did the next time down as the Thunder basically ran the play back exactly the same way.
The fourth try opened up a good look from midrange for Westbrook. He could’ve maybe tried to squeeze a pass to a hard rolling Ibaka, but probably made the right choice as J.J. Hickson gambled and jumped Ibaka’s way at the last second.
Still, the play put Ibaka in good rebounding position, which led to back-to-back offensive boards and eventually, KD’s shimmy dagger.
The last time the Thunder ran it, they went with a little different look, letting Derek Fisher and Ibaka come up as the horns, running a little misdirection pick-and-roll for KD as Ibaka rolled hard to pull in a defender and Westbrook kicked.
What Horns does is it gets the Thunder into a set offensive structure, but allows them to play the way they’re accustomed to — freelancing and improvising. There’s been a lot of talk about the need for an offensive system in OKC and really, this could be the rudimentary makings of one based around a very common set. The Thunder aren’t going to be the kind of team, at least not right now, that has principled offensive structure to adhere to. Westbrook and Durant need room to breathe.
So with Horns, you interchange the parts, letting Durant initiate with Westbrook in a corner ready to cut. Or you let Reggie Jackson run point, dropping to Durant or Westbrook in the high post, or running pick-and-roll with KD as Westbrook times up a cut.
What Horns does is present Westbrook (or whoever) with multiple options. He can run it left, pick-and-rolling with Ibaka to either set him up for a pick-and-pop, stop and pop for a midrange jumper, or attack the paint either finishing at the rim or drawing the defense to kick out.
There’s a catch to this, though: One thing Horns requires though, at least for the Thunder — a smallball lineup. You could conceivably interchange Ibaka with any other big, but he’s certainly the most effective one to have in it. Brooks showed a lot of last season one of his preferred closing lineups was with KD at the 4 and Ibaka at the 5. The Lakers sometimes run Horns with Pau Gasol in a corner and while Ibaka is a decent catch-and-shoot corner 3 guy, it’s not the ideal setup. I think for the Thunder to run Horns most effectively, it needs three guards, Durant and Ibaka.
Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece a couple of years ago about the Triangle offense where one anonymous coach said this:
“When I look at Oklahoma City,” the anonymous coach said, “I see a team that is built to run the Triangle. They are so designed to run the Triangle that it’s almost a joke. Imagine them running a two-man game on the weak side with [Kevin] Durant and [Russell] Westbrook. Who the f— is gonna stop that?”
Horns is more like am isolated Pyramid. And what it does is involve the Thunder’s three best players — at least more of the time — and puts the ball in the playmakers hands whether that’s Westbrook, Durant or maybe even sometimes Jackson.
It’s not like last night was something new where the Thunder just discovered it. They’ve been running Horns for a good while now, but I think maybe it is starting to click in a way that could really be something special. And even possibly the beginnings to a real offensive scheme they can rely on to produce good movement and late game execution. Which hoo boy, they could really use.