2021 NBA Finals

Finals Film Study: Suns go at Brook Lopez early and often in Game 1

The Bucks need to quickly figure out how to better defend pick and rolls when Lopez is on the floor or face the possibility of a 2-0 deficit.

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann

No matter the defensive scheme the Bucks showed, Chris Paul and the Suns sought out Brook Lopez throughout Game 1.

Brook Lopez was the target from the opening tip in Game 1 of The Finals on Tuesday.

On the Phoenix Suns’ first eight possessions of their 118-105 victory (the eight times they had the ball before Lopez went to the bench for a brief rest), there were nine times where they went at the Milwaukee Bucks’ starting center with a pick and roll or dribble-handoff. They did it twice on two of those eight possessions, and the only possession on which they didn’t put Lopez into a screening action was a fast-break where he didn’t make it across midcourt.

This wasn’t out of character. The Suns ranked 10th in the regular season with 95.3 ball-screens or handoffs per 100 possessions. In Chris Paul and Devin Booker, they have two of the best pick-and-roll players in the league, both very comfortable playing off the dribble. Combining regular season and playoffs, Paul and Booker have taken 839 and 836 pull-up jumpers respectively, totals that only trail that of Luka Doncic (894).

It also wasn’t an unfamiliar situation for Lopez, who ranks in the top 10 in regard to pick and rolls and handoffs defended. But this was some kind of volume on Game 1. Lopez was on the floor without Bobby Portis for 37 defensive possessions on Tuesday, and the Suns put him in 32 screening actions on those 37 possessions. Suns center Deandre Ayton was the primary screener, but if Lopez happened to be guarding somebody else (he picked up Mikal Bridges in transition early in the third quarter), that guy set the ball screen …

Mikal Bridges screen for Chris Paul

And this was a different kind of Lopez than we’re used to seeing. As he did in the last two games of the Eastern Conference finals (when he didn’t have to play against a fully healthy Trae Young), he began Game 1 by switching all those screens and handoffs.

1. Isolating vs. the switch

Switching didn’t work out so well. Having seen Games 5 and 6 of the Bucks’ series against the Atlanta Hawks, the Suns were probably prepared for it. And both Paul and Booker were happy to play one-on-one against the Milwaukee big man. They both missed shots over Lopez in the opening minute, but the Phoenix offense then began to find some traction.

It was midway through the second quarter when the Suns’ two guards took turns against their primary target, with Paul hitting a step-back jumper …

Chris Paul step-back jumper

… and Booker hitting a runner off the glass …

Devin Booker runner

Those are tough shots, but Paul and Booker are tough shot makers. They’re going to find space against a relatively slow-footed defender like Lopez, and they’re mostly undeterred by his size.

2. Roll-man mismatch

Lopez switching screens doesn’t just put him on the ball-handler. It also puts the ball-handler’s defender on the screener, another mismatch the Suns can take advantage of. That’s probably the main reason why P.J. Tucker — with the strength to play against Ayton inside — was guarding Paul to start the game.

No matter who’s defending the ball-handler, the screener can take advantage of the switch by getting under the guy he’s screening. On the Suns’ fourth possession of the game, Ayton screened for Paul and got on the basket side of Tucker, who was forced to foul him.

Midway through the first quarter, Ayton handed the ball off to Booker. Jrue Holiday was initially on the right side of Ayton and hoping Portis (guarding Jae Crowder a few feet way) would see the mismatch and switch onto the Suns’ center. But Portis wasn’t on the same page and Holiday lost contact with Ayton, who caught a lob from Booker …

Deandre Ayton roll to the rim

As the Bucks were searching for answers on Tuesday, playing both centers together wasn’t it. The Suns scored 20 points on 13 possessions with Portis and Lopez on the floor together.

3. Drawing help

The Suns didn’t just get buckets from the ball-handler on isolations. Once they had some success, they drew the attention of extra defenders. Midway through the second quarter, Holiday basically had his back turned to Paul as Booker isolated against Lopez. Booker took one hard dribble toward Holiday and Paul had himself a wide-open, catch-and-shoot 3 …

Chris Paul 3-pointer

Booker also had a secondary (“hockey”) assist late in the third quarter, driving against Lopez and kicking out to Paul, who swung the ball to Bridges on the left wing.

4. Back to drop

After Paul scored six points — another step-back mid-range jumper and a four-point play — on two isolations against Lopez in the first two minutes of the third quarter, the Bucks went back to what had been their most common pick-and-roll coverage with their big man. They had him dropping back into the paint, with the ball-handler’s defender going over the screen.

On the first “drop” possession (a dribble-handoff from Ayton to Booker), Giannis Antetokounmpo sunk from the weak side to help on Ayton’s roll, and Bridges got an open, weak-side 3 (that he missed).

Once the Suns saw the adjustment, they went to their “stack” (sometimes called “Spain”) pick-and-roll, where Booker set a back-screen on Lopez after the initial ball-screen. With Lopez hit by the screen and Antetokounmpo’s weak-side help a little late, Ayton went to the free throw line.

Their next ploy was to have Booker as the lone weak-side shooter, so that Khris Middleton had to choose between tagging the roll or staying with Booker. He chose the latter option and Ayton got a dunk …

Chris Paul lob to Deandre Ayton

Then Paul and Booker took turns again, each “snaking” against the drop coverage and getting to their spots …

Chris Paul pick-and-roll jumper

Devin Booker pick-and-roll jumper

5. Small ball

The switching wasn’t working, with Lopez or his backup. Late in the third quarter, three straight isolations against Portis turned into eight points for the Suns. He actually tried to pick Paul’s pocket on the second of those three and found himself on the wrong side of a rare layup from the Suns’ point guard.

After those three straight scores, Portis switched another Ayton screen for Paul, but Tucker had had enough, fighting through the screen anyway. With both defenders on the ball, Ayton had a clean roll to the paint, where he drew a foul from Pat Connaughton. So trapping the pick and roll, even if it wasn’t a coordinated trap, didn’t work either.

The Bucks other option, of course, was playing Antetokounmpo or Tucker at center and switching with more mobility than Lopez or Portis could provide. That’s how they started the second quarter, and their first defensive possession of the period was a good one. The kept the Suns in front of them and forced a contested 3 from Torrey Craig. Cameron Johnson made one brilliant high-low pass to Ayton after a switch, but the Bucks allowed just nine points on 12 possessions playing small in that second quarter.

After Lopez and Portis struggled more in the third quarter, neither played in the fourth until Portis checked in with 25 seconds left. The Bucks played small the entire period and played relatively well defensively, holding Phoenix to 26 points on 24 possessions.

Even with Lopez and Portis on the floor, the Bucks still had targets. Cameron Payne got a couple of buckets by beating Connaughton and Khris Middleton off the dribble, while Booker hit an isolation step-back over the smaller Bryn Forbes. With Donte DiVincenzo out for the season, the Bucks’ small-ball lineups aren’t as strong defensively as they were when he was healthy.

But they were stronger defensively when they played small than when they weren’t. While the Suns scored 83 points on 66 possessions (126 per 100) with Lopez and/or Portis on the floor, they scored just 35 on 36 (97 per 100) when both were on the bench.

Phoenix ran their “stack” pick-and-roll out of a timeout midway through the fourth, and the Bucks were able to scramble out of a Ayton-Forbes mismatch and force a turnover …

Phoenix turnover

Up next: Game 2

The first adjustment for the Bucks in Game 2 on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC) is to play better. Every defensive scheme can be played with varying levels of pressure and energy. When Milwaukee went to the “drop” coverage in the third quarter, there was one possession where Tucker fought over the screen and successfully contested a Paul jumper from behind while Holiday helped from off the ball.

But the two big questions for the Milwaukee defense are …

  1. How much do the Bucks play small?
  2. How do they defend pick and rolls when Lopez and Portis are on the floor?

Given their lack of depth, it may be difficult for them to play small much more than they did in Game 1. They can certainly avoid playing Lopez and Portis together, something they did in only two games (for a total of five minutes) through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

And there is no easy answer for Question 2. The Suns are in The Finals, in part, because they can execute against any pick-and-roll coverage a defense employs. The Bucks may have to pick their poison, play with a little more energy, and hope for the best.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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