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The Ballad of Brook Lopez: How the Bucks Big is Disrupting Miami Inside the Arc

A return to his roots has borne fruit

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NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

When the dust settled after the analytics comet struck NBA hardwoods, Brook Lopez’s game should’ve been extinct. Instead (as we all know by now) he evolved, turning his finely tuned post moves into capable long-range cannons. His explosion as a 3-point shooter in Milwaukee under Mike Budenholzer’s tutelage resulted in his handsome $52 million dollar payday despite the Bucks flaming out against the Toronto Raptors in 2019. What turned even more heads was his evolution into an All-Defensive player. Once more, Bud armed Lopez with a zone-drop scheme that took his best attributes, length and intelligence, and deployed them to craft one of the finest rim protection teams in NBA history last year.

Then, the Playoffs came, and the Miami Heat dismantled Bud’s best laid plans. And when Bud trotted out new attempts at switching, zone, etc. defensively to start this season, Lopez struggled to find his footing. Before the All-Star break and even last offeason, it wasn’t uncommon to see folks wonder if the Milwaukee Bucks should ship Lopez away for an upgrade. Given the natural evolution towards smallball and Giannis Antetokounmpo making theoretical sense as an idealized center in those lineups, I understood the sentiment even if I was more in the “Keep Brook” camp. But then, after the All-Star break, Brook started finding his groove by turning back the clock and navigating inside the arc. I like to imagine Bud simply craned his neck up at Brook one day and muttered, “’re big.” Through two games against Miami, that bigness is a key reason Milwaukee leads 2-0.

It starts defensively. While Milwaukee has certainly switched more this season (to mixed results) Lopez has typically still played in the drop scheme while 1-4 switches. He’ll switch occasionally and come up higher on screens against elite shooters (Curry, Lillard), but it wasn’t all that weird (even if it was irritating) to see him sag liberally off Duncan Robinson as he curled around for triples to open Game One. Anytime the Heat have tried to embark inside the arc though, he’s obliterated their field goal percentage.

Per Cleaning The Glass, when Lopez has been on the floor, the Heat have shot 9.3% worse at the rim and from short midrange (4-~14 feet). That’s an outrageous number given Miami shot 68.1% at the rim in the regular season, second in the league and just a few percentage points better than Milwaukee. Overall, Miami’s eFG% drops by 10.3% with Brook out there, but I picked those two locations since they’re the most likely place for Lopez to have a direct impact.

Compared to the regular season, Milwaukee’s point of attack and perimeter defense has looked more coordinated through two games, but it’s ironic that part of their success thus far is due to running back the first tenet in Bud’s teachings: protect the rim at all costs. Miami’s two best players, neither of whom are perimeter oriented, can barely get to the rim without encountering a massive paw in their face. Most importantly, Brook has Bam Adebayo looking nothing like the world-destroying, athletic dynamo that he was in last year’s postseason series. Last year, all I can picture is a confident Bam knocking down floater and midrange jumpers, much to my surprise. When those trends carried over to this regular season for him, I presumed he would come in just as deadly this postseason. Nope, not yet. Spo even ran the first play of Game Two for him to try and get him going to no avail. Lopez has completely tilted off his rhythm by sagging multiple feet off him every time he touches the ball.

Now, this isn’t all with Lopez defending him, but here’s how Bam is shooting by distance from the basket compared to last season’s second round series:

Some of those numbers are going to swing around for Bam, he’s too good to be held down the full series, but it matches up with the eye test. Just compare the play from Game One below where Lopez gives him ample space to do what he wants, only for Bam to end the play in a whimper.

Compare it to last year. Even on a miss, there’s a confidence to his movements and pull-up jumper below that look drastically different from the first two games this series.

Watching Adebayo’s attempts from this year’s Playoffs, almost every jumper comes with a dribble or two and hesitation before chucking it towards the rim. When Bam is rolling, there’s just so many more opportunities for the Heat’s offense to click. After he works as a fulcrum screener on the perimeter, the threat of a shot at the free throw line on a short roll could force Lopez up higher, thus freeing up an easier lane along the baseline or via cut for a Heat teammate to work towards the rim. Instead, Lopez keeps playing chicken, and Bam’s getting fried.

Brook’s return to his roots hasn’t just happened defensively though, indeed, it’s been more drastic on the offensive end. It started after the All-Star Break, when there seemed to be a more concerted effort to work Brook inside. Just look at his shot frequency data via Cleaning The Glass pre- and post-All-Star Break.

He’s taking 15% fewer shots from beyond the arc, which has essentially been his role the past two seasons. It’s what made him remarkably relevant in the modern NBA, but as defenses have adapted, it’s also grown stagnant and allowed them to place undersized defenders on Lopez knowing they simply have to get a hand in his face on the perimeter. For all the hullabaloo about his emergence, his still around a 35% 3-point shooter, and Milwaukee’s fallen down the last two postseasons due to iffy shooting from its role players. Post-ASB, Brook has moved more 3-point shots to attempts inside the arc, namely at the rim. He took the highest percentage of his shots at the rim since the 2015-16 season, when he had 40% of shots from there.

It’s not just the “post-up Brook against smaller players” solution we heard about last year though. What seemed like a panacea last year was nothing more than wishful thinking. Instead, they’re working him into pick-and-roll actions, cuts, setting up shot at the dunker spot, you name it. It’s all a far more elegant solution than relying on the old-fashioned post-up, which is still not an ideal shot, even in the hands of someone who has practiced it for three decades.

Here’s a basic pick-and-roll, but rather than having Lopez pop like he might in year’s past to launch a deep triple, he still rolls into a crowded paint. But, he recognizes he’s got a size matchup on Butler, and gives Middleton a much-needed outlet before calmly knocking down a hook shot over Butler.

He has never been a big offensive rebounder himself, but that has been a greater emphasis for the Bucks this year. Here, he takes advantage of the fact Miami has gone small and one capable rebounder, Bam, is busy trying to guard Giannis while Butler is busy blocking out Holiday in the dunker spot. Lopez just slips in for a critical tip in Game One.

And even with all that, when guarded by a big, his gravity can still play just enough of a role in keeping the paint clean for Giannis, Jrue or Khris to slink their way inside and get to work.

Working inside won’t work against every team, but it brings more versatility to his offensive repertoire. If Lopez doesn’t have it going from outside the arc, it won’t be a wash on that end. There are other, reliable ways for him to contribute even if his shot is errant for an evening. It’s never going to be massive volume for him, but this season was all about carving out new wrinkles they could call upon when needed. It’s a fitting microcosm of the Bucks adaptation this season. In Game One, the Bucks continued to manufacture points inside rather than chucking from outside and hoping their 3-point luck turned around. Lopez had 18 points despite going just 1-4 from deep in that game.

The Miami series isn’t close to being over, but if the Bucks somehow advance, Lopez may not have a place in every series. There will be times he could be played off the floor, and while Bud’s certainly preferred to have his behemoth out there, there have been instances when he sits at the end of games. Smallball lineups will be necessary, but Brook has rebounded from the adjustment period swimmingly and is putting his size to work against Miami. When his season may have seemed a bit lost, the answer was simple: “We have to go back.”