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How the Sixers ran the same play over and over again vs the Hawks

Like a frustrating Madden opponent, Nick Nurse found a play that worked, and he kept mashing that button.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Atlanta Hawks Jordan Godfree-USA TODAY Sports

It was an innocuous home game vs Portland in late October.

James Harden was still a Philadelphia 76er at the time, and the Sixers themselves were 1-1, trailing one of the worst teams in the NBA during the first half.

It’s also when the Sixers first ran a play that has become a staple for them under Nick Nurse, and was key in their 126-116 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Friday night.

This basic yet effective set is called “Horns Chin.”

It’s relatively easy to understand. Two players start at the two elbows (those two are what makes it a “Horns” alignment), two players space in the corners, and the ball handler enters the ball to the elbow from the top of the key.

That ball handler who just threw the entry pass then receives a back screen at a 45-degree angle from the player at the elbow opposite to the side of the pass they just threw. This is referred to as a “Chin” screen. It’s not rocket science, but it should work well against any defense that isn’t ready for it.

As the Sixers got more comfortable with this set, the original goal was to get that simple size mismatch for Harris inside. Philly was simply switch hunting, hoping that by screening with Pat Bev or Maxey, they’d get a small defender switched onto a much larger forward like Harris or Nic Batum, and from there they could enter the ball in for a post-up.

The play worked every so often, but it was fairly predictable. Opponents like T.J. McConnell could sense it coming and deny the pass with good positioning on the switch, and others could use Harris’s strength against him, and bait an offensive foul when he dove toward the rim.

So how did Nurse and the Sixers counter this in Atlanta last night? Simple, they put Maxey in the spot where they had forwards before, and extended the progression of the action.

From now on, Maxey would receive the chin screen, before setting a flex screen for his teammate coming in from the opposite corner (most often Harris in this case), and then flow up to run a dribble-handoff with Joel Embiid at the elbow. What started as a quick hitter in the Sixers’ playbook has become a full-out motion set that the team spammed so often vs the Hawks that you’d accuse them of button-mashing if it were a video game.

As you can tell from those clips in the video above, the Sixers changed their goal for the play entirely on Friday. Maxey, Melton or whoever entered the ball to the elbow to start the play still receives the back screen, but there’s no intention of actually finding them off of it for a layup.

Instead, whichever guard kickstarts the action is more focused on the “Flex” screen they’re setting for Tobias Harris, who flies in off the opposite corner looking for a layup. The Sixers combine this with having an elbow-to-elbow pass up top, in order to get the ball to Embiid, who obviously will draw a lot of attention and open up the passing lane.

It’s praying on the tendency the Sixers sought to expose all the way back in that third game of the season against the Blazers. Teams really, really, really do not want to leave Tyrese Maxey open. Thus, turning him into a screener can be lethal. This way just has him doing it at a different angle and from a different area of the court.

There’s a natural progression in this play that many astute readers might have noticed in the minute compilation from earlier. If Maxey’s defender decides he does want to stay back and prevent Harris from getting an open layup off the flex action, it gives No. 0 on the Sixers a headstart on the dribble handoff he’s flying up the court to run with Embiid.

Combine that with a pin down screen set by the opposite elbow player, and it’s not too different from the usual dribble-handoff sets the Sixers already run with their two best players. This is just a more intricate way to get to that dynamic.

Embiid killing the flow of the play to isolate for a step back three over Clint Capela isn’t exactly replicable or predictive offense, but sometimes it works out when you have one of the greatest scoring big men to ever walk the face of the earth.

That’s the other thing about this series, and what’s great about making that elbow-to-elbow pass to get the ball back in Embiid’s hands. The initiating guard and Harris doing their dance in the opposite side dunker spot can distract the defenders and clear easier driving lanes for the reigning MVP.

It seems unfair to opposing centers to have them deal with an Embiid isolation without getting any help from their teammates. And putting those centers in “unfair” situations is exactly what you want to do if you’re Nick Nurse.

None of this is rocket science. It’s just good offense with understandable progressions run by very talented players.

Nurse even tried to break out a counter to the action to start the second half, but the Hawks sniffed it out and shut it down pretty well.

Though it’s very fun to look back at how the Sixers got to this point — trying out the first variation of the play in the third game of the season vs Portland, then turning it into the key cog of their offense vs Atlanta — it’s far from the most important thing this team does.

Now and always, their best plays will be Embiid hitting every single one of his face-up midrange jumpers or Maxey cashing home off-the-dribble threes from ridiculously far out. Talent and principles can supersede X’s and O’s brilliance at any time.

But still, it was good to see Nurse and the Sixers come out with such an intentional plan agains the Hawks on Friday, running this set into the ground in order to snap their two-game losing streak and to stay alive for the inaugural NBA In-Season Tournament.

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