2021 Playoffs: East First Round | Bucks vs. Heat

Brook Lopez's interior play has Bucks on verge of sweep

After drifting almost exclusively to the 3-point line, Brook Lopez is back to punishing opponents in the paint.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Lopez has reverted to his Brooklyn days when he owned the paint on both ends of the floor.

Not to get ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks or the work left to do in this first round, but if both they and the Brooklyn Nets advance, there’s a guy who will look plenty familiar to the fans welcomed into the Barclays Center.

The Brook Lopez manning the middle for Milwaukee so far this postseason looks a lot like the big guy who played for the Nets in their 2013 and 2015 playoff appearances.

The version of Lopez who helped the Bucks snag the East’s No. 1 seed the past two years? Not so much.

But it’s working out fine for Milwaukee against the Miami Heat, evident in the Bucks’ 3-0 edge in the this first-round series.

Lopez, adapting to the changes in the Bucks’ offensive and defensive schemes this season, has found himself well inside the 3-point line where he earned the nickname “Splash Mountain.” After working to become a 3-point shooting threat in 2017-18 with the Lakers and in his Milwaukee stint since, Lopez has attempted only eight shots from beyond the arc through three games and made just one.

That’s reminiscent of his performance in the Nets’ series against Chicago (2013) and Atlanta (2015), when he went 1-for-1 across 13 total games. Far more so than the combined 43-for-128 he shot on 3-pointers in 25 playoff games with the Bucks the last two postseasons.

Game 3 Recap: Bucks 113, Heat 84

Defensively, Lopez hasn’t changed much across his career. But much had changed around him in the regular season, with Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer employing more switching while incorporating new toys such as Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker into their schemes.

The tinkering came with a price — a slide from the NBA’s No. 1 defense per 100 possessions (102.5) to No. 9 (110.7). And Lopez slid right along with it, from 100.1 in 2019-20 to 110.2. His net rating drooped (from double digits his first two seasons to 6.8), his role changed and there were nights when Lopez either didn’t look good or finished games on the bench.

That’s been the case in Games 2 and 3 of the series vs. Miami, but for a happier reason: Lopez’s services haven’t been needed in the Bucks’ 34 and 29-point blowout victories. In Game 1, though, he was on the floor for the final 13:11 of the fourth quarter and overtime as Milwaukee eked out a 109-107 victory. He scored three of the Bucks’ 10 points while helping to hold the Heat’s front line scoreless (0-for-5) in OT.

That’s how it has gone since, only with less urgency. Lopez’s work defensively, along with his teammates, is reflected in his 89.4 rating. He has made nights long for Miami’s Bam Adebayo, who is shooting 40% after his 60% performance in ousting the Bucks from the Orlando bubble in September.

Meanwhile, Lopez is averaging 12.7 points and 6.3 rebounds on 50% shooting without flaunting the long ball. His work has been more traditional. In a first-quarter sequence Thursday, Lopez swatted Duncan Robinson’s layup attempt off the glass, then went into a post-up for a jumper over Jimmy Butler. Next quarter, he rim-ran on a Bucks’ break, finished with a reverse layup and earned a 3-point play.

And when some Miami folks began calling for more Dewayne Dedmon, a more traditional 7-footer as a counter to Lopez instead of the hybrid 6-foot-9 Adebayo, Dedmon lasted barely 12 minutes in Game 3, skedaddling at minus-18 back to the Heat bench.

Milwaukee's depth and the play of Jrue Holiday have it on the cusp of a first-round sweep of Miami.

“Him finding ways to impact the game in the paint, that’s something that’s been building this season and particularly since the All-Star break,” Budenholzer said before the series began. “I think he’s just really diversified himself personally, individually. I think it’s been a huge addition.”

The coaching staff’s deployment of the “dunker” role in Milwaukee’s offense this season — keeping one attacker low to break up some of the “wall” tactics thrown at Giannis Antetokounmpo the past two postseasons — has kept Lopez available to make and receive slick passes near the basket. There has been a lot more rolling than popping this season in Milwaukee’s pick-and-rolls.

He has done some switching, too, straying from his comfort zone, though his presence still is felt most inside. Lopez’s play at both ends improved over time, taking a leap after the break in March.

“I feel good with everything,” Lopez said of his offensive game. “I think it’s just a continued progression … of getting used to having the ‘dunker,’ getting used to having these new positions and slightly different offense and everything like that.”

No one can miss the contributions of the Bucks’ Big Three, not on a night when Khris Middleton led in scoring with 22 points, Antetokounmpo posted 17 points, 17 rebounds and five assists, and Holiday contributed 19 points, 12 assists and strong defense to a league-high plus-88 in the playoffs.

But the Bucks’ big has helped make it all possible at both ends, pulling his performances out of a personal time machine.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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