The Bucks Would Be In Big Trouble Without Brook Lopez
When two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo tumbled to the court in the first quarter of the Milwaukee Bucks’ series-opening loss against the Miami Heat, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference knew it would need to rally around the rest of its core.
“Everyone’s ready,” said center Brook Lopez of the challenge. And as it turned out, Lopez was the one leading the charge — as has often secretly been the case for Antetokounmpo’s slightly taller (and mostly overlooked) teammate.
Thanks to Lopez’s efforts, the Bucks responded decisively in Game 2, demolishing Miami in a 138-122 victory. The 7-footer scored a game-high 25 points on 12-for-17 shooting, delivering a jolt of offense Milwaukee might have worried would be missing without its superstar. And on the other end of the floor, Lopez easily led all defenders by contesting 19 shots, while as the primary defender he held Bam Adebayo to 8 points on 4-for-10 shooting. The win may have helped stabilize the series for the Bucks, who now have a 64 percent chance of advancing to the second round even after accounting for Antetokounmpo’s unclear status going forward.
Anchoring a team at both ends, and especially on defense, is nothing new for Lopez. But sometimes a player like him is best appreciated in absentia, which happened when Lopez missed nearly the entire 2021-22 regular season after he underwent back surgery in December 2021. To that point — and with a healthy Lopez available for coach Mike Budenholzer — Milwaukee had led the NBA in defensive rating twice in three years.1 But with Lopez limited to 13 regular-season games, the Bucks fell back to No. 14 in defensive rating and were eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 2022 NBA playoffs.2
Milwaukee fashioned a top-five defense this season in part due to the return of Lopez, who appeared in 78 games, led the league in blocked shots (193) and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. “Whatever happens, if someone comes at the rim, I’m going to try to be there to stop them from putting the ball in the basket,” Lopez said. “That’s a pretty simple answer, I guess.”
To turn away a shot, a defender must first make the choice to contest it. Nobody made that split-second decision this season more than Lopez (17.5 per game, 45 percent more challenges than any other player), who led the league in contested shots by an appreciable margin.3
All told, Lopez contested 526 more shots inside the arc than any other NBA player — and 400 more than the combined output of the most recent Heat starting lineup Lopez and the Bucks squared off against in the first round of the playoffs. And not all of his contested shots were at the rim. Lopez also contested 135 3-pointers, more than perimeter-centric defenders like Russell Westbrook (133), Tyrese Haliburton (125) and Devin Booker (115). Overall, opposing shooters saw their percentage drop by nearly 5 percentage points when Lopez served as the primary defender.
This effort matters to Milwaukee’s bottom line, of course. Without Lopez on the court, the Bucks allow 113.0 points per 100 possessions, or the equivalent of the 10th-best defense in the league. When Lopez plays, Milwaukee opponents score just 106.6, which would be the league’s best defense by a huge margin of 3.3 points per 100 possessions.
The Bucks have asked more of Lopez than just his defense. They also needed help on offense. Most championship teams over the past decade were near the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Milwaukee’s offense finished the regular season ranked No. 15, and in absolute terms that left their efficiency closer to No. 22 than to No. 10. While the Bucks’ offense has performed at the sixth-best rate in the league since the All-Star Break, much still depends on the health of Khris Middleton, who has played in just 33 games this season and is currently nursing a knee injury (which didn’t prevent him from playing in Games 1 and 2, but threatened to).
Middleton was the second-leading scorer and fourth-quarter closer on the Bucks’ 2021 championship team, and even though his scoring has dipped this season, he still contributes 15 points per game for an at-times stagnant offense. With him in and out of the lineup, Lopez’s scoring (15.9 per game) ended up the highest it had been since the 2016-17 season, and he shot a career-best 37.4 percent from beyond the arc on a diet of 3-point attempts nearly double his career average. In total, Lopez’s true shooting percentage of 63.0 percent represented the most efficient shooting season of his career.
A career-best output is hardly the expectation for a 15-year pro with more than 30,000 career minutes played. Lopez turned 35 earlier this month and finished fourth in block rate (6.7 percent). The three players ranked ahead of him4 have played a combined 10 NBA seasons and are each at least 11 years younger. That a breakout season from a veteran on the oldest roster in the league might swing this year’s NBA title race is an odd reality. But it was one that was on clear display when the Bucks needed someone to pick up the slack in Antetokounmpo’s absence and help turn a series around.
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