MILWAUKEE — Come for the 3-point melodrama, stay for the rim protection, the put-backs, the block-outs and the blocked shots.
Come for the anguish and frustration that plays out across Brook Lopez’s face over the course of a typical NBA game, stay for the maniacal, jubilant, fourth-quarter clapping that gets turned into a GIF and goes viral within minutes.
Come for the unbuttoned Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball jersey, stay for the Disney fashion T-shirt showing beneath it and the Pizza Planet cap up top.
“I’ve always tried to have fun when I go out and play basketball,” said Lopez. The Milwaukee Bucks’ center embodied his team’s performance as they clawed back Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, beating the Toronto Raptors, 108-100, Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum.
“I obviously love playing the game,” said Lopez, dressed like a 7-foot 10-year-old for his podium appearance. “But no question I’ve been having a great time here.”
Lopez, 31, scored 29 points, a personal playoff best, and grabbed 11 rebounds. It was his first 20-point night of the Bucks’ 10 playoff games so far, only the fourth of his career (he has appeared in just 23 postseason games in 11 seasons). And it came on the heels of a Game 5 effort against Boston a week ago in which Lopez was held scoreless. Milwaukee clinched anyway.
This one was an ordeal for Lopez and for the Bucks, an opener in the best-of-seven series in which they slogged through three quarters without much touch or rhythm. The style of play they’ve embraced over 82 games and the past month of postseason was betraying them; Milwaukee kept hoisting and missing 3-pointers, as single-mindedly in spite of horrid results as if they all wore beards and played for Houston.
The resulting nastiness: A 6-for-34 (17.6 percent) showing from the arc, while digging an 83-76 hole that maxed out at 13 points. Lopez was a notable offender. He missed his first three from deep and only broke through midway through the second quarter. His shot from out front that got the Bucks within 42-37 was followed by a reaction of one part frustration, one part exasperation and a couple parts relief.
That’s the wide open space of Lopez’s game, out there on the wing or in the corner launching for all the world to see. Home fans seem to live and die on each attempt, riding an emotional rollercoaster while – on nights such as this one – they wait for his results to regress to the mean.
That finally happened in the fourth quarter. Lopez – who shot a total of 31 3-pointers in his first eight seasons, 300-plus in each of the next two and ultimately 512 in 2018-19 with the Bucks – hit two to get his team going in the quarter. His third in the period, one possession after Lopez finished a slo-mo fast-break for a 101-100 lead, sent Toronto into a timeout, down four with 1:55 left.
That was when Lopez came with the clapping. And when play resumed, there was Lopez again, getting a hand on Kawhi Leonard’s attempt to attack the rim, stripping and corralling the ball for a block and rebound.
As good as Kyle Lowry was over the final 12 minutes, as potent as the Raptors’ offense was at certain points earlier, they were done scoring for the night. Lopez did the small stuff all night, even finishing off the dribble a couple times. It’s just that, by virtue of how he and the Bucks have played this season, those things get overshadowed by the broad strokes that didn’t go his way until late.
“This is the Brook we all know and we all love,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Said Khris Middleton: “He’s a beast. Inside the paint, made some big plays for us. On the defensive end, he covers up so much for our mistakes.”
That's what my teammates have been telling me: Keep letting it fly."
The Bucks’ adherence to what works has been tested for quarters, for halves, but so far only for one whole game in these playoffs – they dropped the opener against Boston. Milwaukee won the next four in a row to oust the Celtics.
In the dressing room afterward, there was chatter that they’d snatched one away, that they couldn't have played worse – at least on offense.
In that fourth quarter, outscoring Toronto 32-17, Milwaukee made up for a multitude of sins. The Bucks hit 50 percent of their shots, missed only 1-of-10 free throws and dominated the boards (14-4) to finish with a 60-45 edge. The Raptors were held to 5-of-22 shooting in the quarter. And Lopez, dragging a minus-5 plus/minus rating through three quarters, was sitting on a plus-7 by the horn.
The key? Absolutely faith in the style they’ve honed since late September, and a commitment to letting it fly. Whether we’re talking about a conscienceless approach to 3-pointers or Lopez’s irrepressible good nature. He has made as many as eight 3-pointers in a game this season (at Denver, Nov. 11) and attempted as many as 15 (vs. Brooklyn, Dec. 29). There is no such thing as too many.
“That’s what my teammates have been telling me,” Lopez said. “George Hill specifically and then [Giannis], too. They just stick in my mind: ‘Keep shooting the ball, you just need one to go down. Keep letting it fly.”
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