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Nuggets Playbook: McGee in Horns

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In this column, we'll check out some "Horns" set plays run by the Nuggets against the Pelicans on Friday night, particularly as employed with Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday at the Pepsi Center the Denver Nuggets recorded a nice victory 117-97 over the New Orleans Pelicans. Some of the biggest plays from the game happened out of what is known as the "Horns" set which the second unit employed especially well.

The Horns set is currently among the most popular in the NBA and involves an alignment of the point guard up high, two players at the elbow/pinch post (usually big men), and a player in either corner:

There are a couple of factors in particular that the second unit was able to take advantage of using Horns:

McGee at the rim: The size (7' tall, 7'6" wingspan) and athleticism of JaVale McGee makes him a powerful weapon at the hoop. If McGee gets separation going to the hoop the passer only needs to 'throw it up there' and McGee can finish, which gives a useful margin of error as these plays don't have to be executed perfectly as long as the separation and timing of the pass are there. This is equivalent to having a large athletic tight end in the red zone in football, and is a significant weapon to have especially if specific plays can be used to unleash the McGee lob.

This season the Nuggets have not been taking advantage of this situation in mismatches, but in the Pelicans game they exploited it well and Brian Shaw mentioned in the post-game that the Nuggets called some lob plays for McGee after they saw how the Pelicans were defending it. Per Shaw ...

"Some of our after time plays were specifically designed for him, some of those lobs that we were getting because of the way that they were defending ..."

It is encouraging to hear that the Nuggets coaches are willing and able to react to what is happening during a game and take advantage with specific moves. Here is a lob play run after a timeout in the 4th quarter:

Running out of the Horns set, Nate Robinson brings up the ball, goes left towards McGee before delivering the alley-oop to McGee. The key to this play is the way Jeff Withey is defending. Even though McGee doesn't even fake a screen and slip he gets enough separation as Withey turns too much attention to covering Nate Robinson, and McGee is able to quickly spin and cut down the middle of the paint. The weak side help defender comes too late and McGee is just too big and too high for him to be able to compete for the well thrown pass in front of the hoop.

Passing: Anticipating McGee getting open going to the hoop and delivering the pass at the right time is also important. Nate Robinson delivered a nice lob pass above, and Danilo Gallinari in particular was also a vital extra facilitator in the Nuggets having success with McGee, as he was able to not only deliver a lob pass but also found McGee open under the hoop with tight passes from the 3 point line on a couple of occasions (one for an assist and the other for a free throw assist) which is also very effective offense due to McGee finishing ability.

On Danilo's alley-oop to McGee, Gallinari was being used at the pinch post which is a good triple threat position for a player of his skill set to work. In this case McGee is able to loop around on the weakside and cut to the hoop. Even though no screen is set McGee effectively uses Jrue Holiday to get enough separation from Ryan Anderson to go for the lob. Anderson tries to recover by Gallo delivers the pass on time and McGee just goes too high for Anderson to be able to challenge the finish.

This play in particular shows good use of Horns coupled with Gallinari's unselfishness. On this play the first action is McGee setting a screen for Robinson. Withey is again focused on Robinson and McGee quickly slips the screen and goes to the hoop. However here (unlike the lob above), Withey drops closely enough with McGee into the paint and is between McGee and the pass so is able prevent the pass being thrown. Robinson swings the ball back to Gallo at the 3 point line in the middle. Gallinari runs a curl handoff with Foye and he pops out to the right side while Foye begins a drive.

In the paint Withey has turned his attention to Foye and when Randy draws three defenders and passes to Gallinari he rotates to block the drive to the paint. Danilo sees McGee in space signalling for a lob, and even though he could get off a 3 point shot Gallo drives a pass into McGee who is fouled to stop him dunking. McGee goes to the line and makes both free throws. While this does not count as an assist for Gallo these kind of passes are recorded by SportVU stats on NBA.com/stats as a 'free throw assist', and it is still a very good example of effective offensive facilitation out of the Horns set.

Against the Pelicans Gallinari and McGee, two players who are returning from long injury breaks, had their best games of the season. It is still early days in their comebacks, but if the Nuggets can keep executing plays like those above using Horns and other sets, the Nuggets touted depth may truly be back in effect as the season rolls on.