MILWAUKEE — With a shade over two minutes remaining in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday night, the Milwaukee Bucks were clinging to a one-point lead over the Toronto Raptors. As Kawhi Leonard — he of the miraculous four-bounce buzzer beater in Game 7 over the Philadelphia 76ers a few days ago — controlled the ball at the top of the key, the Fiserv Forum crowd chanted “De-fense!” with as much effort as they could muster, trying to will their team to a crucial stop. They got their wish, with Leonard’s 3-point attempt hitting the backboard and rimming out.
Giannis Antetokounmpo grabbed the rebound and the crowd’s excitement grew, as they began to sense how close they were to a securing a huge comeback victory. Turning on the jets after he passed half-court, the Greek Freak got into the paint, drew multiple defenders and whipped a pass out to Brook Lopez. It wasn’t a good one, in truth, and the big man had to lean all the way down to snatch it up off the floor. But he knew what he was going to do before he even caught it, so there was no hesitation. He let it fly and rattled it home.
And as the Forum crowd erupted, Lopez turned toward half-court and hit his trademark celebration, signaling not only an end to what he was smoking, but the game as well. The Raptors didn’t score again, as the Bucks secured a 108-100 victory to take a 1-0 lead in the series. Lopez finished with a playoff career-high 29 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in what Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer agreed was the best game he’s seen Lopez play.
“The thing that does stand out is the put-backs and the stuff around the basket, particularly in the first half,” Budenholzer said. “We were kind of struggling for scoring and just anything offensively, and he was able to kind of manufacture a couple things. And obviously in the second half, the 3s in the spread that he gives us. And then defensively, we’ll look at the tape, but I thought he was there several times in the fourth quarter, making blocks, making big-time contests, rebounding. Certainly, in a big moment, that was a great Brook Lopez tonight.”
Lopez’s Game 1 performance was the culmination of a 10-month experiment, and validation for Budenholzer’s grand plan. Lopez was a well-regarded signing in the offseason, but no one could have foreseen just how vital Lopez would become to the Bucks’ turnaround. The team revolves around Giannis, but none of what they do would work, or at least not to this extent, without Lopez.
He stretches the floor out to 30 feet on the offensive end, and became one of the best shooting big men in the league this season. That shooting from the center position opens up all sorts of space for Giannis to operate, and puts immense pressure on opposing defenses.
“When you space the court that far out it spreads the defense out, so there’s more lanes for driving,” said Raptors guard Danny Green, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. “When anybody’s hitting shots, we have to overcompensate on that person. [Lopez] came up big for them.”
And on the other end of the floor, the Bucks opted to concede mid-range jumpers and pick-and-pop opportunities in favor of dropping Lopez into the paint. There, he protected the rim to tremendous effect, and was a big reason the Bucks led the league in field goal defense at the rim during the regular season.
“We really rely on Brook,” Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton said. “He’s our anchor down low. … Tonight he came in with some big blocks, huge rebounds and effort plays. We really follow his lead and he’s been great.”
Both of those aspects of Lopez’s game were on display in Game 1, and in the fourth quarter in particular. He hit three triples en route to 13 points, four rebounds and two blocks in the final frame to help the Bucks secure a crucial win.
It was fitting, too, that Lopez’s big night came after he had a tough series against the Celtics. While in many ways this season has been a breeze for the Bucks, much of that is because they’ve always had a response to any bit of adversity, and never let things spiral. Even now, in the middle of May, they’ve still only lost consecutive games on one occasion.
And just like his team, Lopez was ready with a bounce-back performance to start this series. He hit more shots (12) and scored more points (29) in Game 1 than he did in all five games against the Celtics combined, and nearly blocked as many shots as well.
“I knew at some point Brook was going to come through,” Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe said. “He’s been playing unbelievable defense throughout the whole playoffs. For him to break out an offensive game like this is huge for us.”
It was huge for the Bucks, and there’s no chance they win this game if Lopez doesn’t put together the best scoring game of his postseason career. After that kind of performance, a rare podium game for him, Lopez had plenty of reason to boast, but the veteran wanted no part of the spotlight. Instead he took time, again and again, to praise the team as a whole, explaining just why this group is so special.
“I’ve always tried to have fun when I go out and play basketball,” Lopez said. “I obviously love playing the game. But no question I’ve been having a great time here. It’s just a fun group to be around, a fun coaching staff, fun teammates, great teammates, unselfish — just the best guys in the world.”