The NBA playoffs are essentially about weaknesses, and when you get to the last four teams are generally so good that weaknesses are often less a function of shortcoming than compromise. The Milwaukee Bucks have built a defense largely devoted to protecting the basket. They like to sacrifice jumpers, bet Giannis Antetokounmpo more like a threat from a weak side than a man-to-man stopper, and most notably, tend to play conservative drop cover against pick-and-roll. This makes it much harder for opponents to score on the edge.
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The compromise in that rim protection is the center of the floor. Drop your center back to the basket and most elite ball handlers will accept the space they are given and beat you with pull-up jumpers or floating floaters. Trae Young did both en route to 48 points in Game 1, but those pesky floaters were what really killed the Bucks. Young essentially got them when he wanted them.
Note the distance between Lopez and Young once Young comes off those screens. Lopez played so far back that Young didn’t have a chance to lay-ups over him at the basket, but he didn’t really need to. With that much space, floaters to Young aren’t much harder than open layups. The cost of the compromise was simply too high. Young made nine shots in that general area of the floor in Game 1. In Game 2, he didn’t even try that many 2-pointers. The Bucks stopped compromising. They kept a version of their drop coverage in Game 2, but instead of sinking all the way to the basket, Lopez played much closer to the level of the screen.
The difference was night and day. He is above the extended foul line in this game, and instead of waiting for Young to come to him at the edge, he actively backs up as Young attacks to protect himself from that drive without sacrificing the floater. Essentially, he tries to defend both possibilities at once, and he does so wonderfully. He catches Young in the air with no plan here and the result is a turnover.
Such plays were common in Game 2. When Young tries to get into his float a little faster, Lopez gets up and knocks him away.
The secondary benefit of defending Young aggressively is that it takes away his quickest decision. He doesn’t have the easy float option to walk in, so he needs to take more time to process what’s ahead. That gives Jrue Vacation more time to run back in the game. He credited Lopez for giving him that opportunity after the game. “Trae is a great young player in this league and he is difficult to guard,” said Holiday. “So, I’m getting spanked, Brook is always there to protect my back and everyone is back.” In doing so, he helped generate various turnovers.
This is the essence of pick-and-roll defense, a cat-and-mouse game between the big man and the ball handler in which the big one tries to take away as many options as possible. In Game 2, Lopez took them all away, and that wasn’t just exclusive to Young. Not only does he manage to get rid of the float, but his hips are down too Clint Capela to take the lob pass away. With Antetokounmpo on his back, he had no choice but to try the ill-fated layup. Lopez blocks it, and when Young gets it back from the offensive rebound, Lopez rushes to the perimeter to defend Young there, and before Young can penalize the mismatch, he whacks the ball out of bounds so the Bucks can reset their defense.
“He was incredible tonight,” Antetokounmpo said of Lopez’s defensive effort in those higher drops. “A lot of people don’t give him credit, but he was incredible. Especially in the first half when he played the drop and he went back and forth and he went for the blocks and stuff, he protected the edge, he was incredible.” The hawks was certainly afraid of him on the edge. When the Atlanta guards tried to hit the eject button by going to their big men, Lopez was already within range to refuse them as well.
Lopez isn’t exactly known for his mobility, but frankly, the Bucks rarely give him a chance to show it off. He only played 20 minutes in Game 1 because the Bucks felt… PJ Tucker gave them a better chance to defend in space. Much has been made about Milwaukee’s willingness to switch more this season, but they’ve mostly done that without Lopez in the game. One of the main advantages of the Tucker trade was that it theoretically allowed them to switch 1-5 in certain setups that Lopez would not be a part of. But since Lopez defended just as well as he did in Game 2, the Bucks have no reason to rely on smaller formations.
“He just has great timing, a great understanding of spacing, you know, defensive spacing,” said Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer. “It was exactly what we’ve seen many nights. And like I said, we’ll need that in the future.”
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If Milwaukee gets this kind of defense out of Lopez, Atlanta won’t have any obvious adjustments. They took advantage of a hole in Milwaukee’s defense in Game 1 that no longer exists. This is the best version of Milwaukee’s defense, the one that takes away the things it normally tries to take away without sacrificing anything else in the process. When an elite rim protector proves able to hold its own in space against a three-level goalscorer, his defense has nothing to compromise on.
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