Brook Lopez, who signed with the Milwaukee Bucks as a free agent this summer, has been as advertised in the early days of his Bucks tenure. A smart, skilled veteran, he’s playing his role, taking good shots, moving the ball, battling on defense and keeping his turnovers to a minimum.
The 7-footer has become something of a three-and-D center, a role that would be underheard of in the past but is becoming more plausible with every passing day in the modern NBA. What he brings to the Bucks was evident during the preseason, but his value was especially obvious in Wednesday night’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers at Fiserv Forum.
To be fair, that value wasn’t so apparent from the jump. Lopez, a willing and capable three-point shooter, missed four open looks from deep in the first four minutes of the game.
On the court, at timeouts and during his five-minute stretch on the bench that period he kept hearing the same thing from his teammates and coaches.
“It was just great that everyone showed confidence in me and we all kept playing unselfishly and kept playing the way we have been all season so far,” said Lopez, who finished with 21 points, his highest total as a Buck.
Everyone on the Bucks bench knew Lopez’s shooting would turn around. He wasn’t forcing anything or taking shots out of his comfort zone. They believed at some point the shots would start dropping.
Most importantly, in order for Milwaukee’s offense to operate at its highest level, the Bucks need Lopez to continue to assert himself as a three-point threat, especially against centers such as Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who can wreak havoc in the paint. The Bucks prefer when Lopez’s shots fall, but at the very least they need him to be a credible threat.
“We don’t want Joel Embiid staying in the paint all night,” forward Giannis Antetokounmpo added. “It’s not going to give us driving lanes.”
So Lopez kept firing and his success rate turned on a dime. Twenty seconds after he returned to the game late in the first quarter, he made Milwaukee’s first three-pointer off a feed from Donte DiVincenzo.
He turned that conversion into a streak in the second quarter, making four straight three-pointers in eight Bucks possessions in a span of fewer than three minutes.
“I think he’s going to get a lot of looks this season,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “The second quarter was phenomenal. It kind of balanced out; he had four great looks and he didn’t make any of them. We all felt like if we kept sharing the ball, we keep passing it, we keep making the right read and the right decision, it’ll balance out.”
Lopez ultimately went 5 of 11 from long range and 7 of 13 overall. His five triples marked the seventh time he’s made five or more three-pointers in a game during his 11-year career.
While Lopez’s sharpshooting likely drew the most attention from his performance Wednesday, his defense on Embiid was equally important. Embiid still went off for 30 points, but Lopez took the lead on making Embiid fight for everything he got. Embiid’s road to 30 points involved going 9 of 24 from the floor and 10 of 13 from the free-throw line.
“I was thinking, how did we guard Embiid last year?” Antetokounmpo asked himself aloud. “Thank God, we’re really lucky we have Brook this year because he’s a big body. He can put his body on Embiid, he can frustrate him a little bit.”
Lopez’s performance Wednesday was as emblematic of what he’s brought to the Bucks throughout the early days of this season. In four games, the Bucks are 22.2 points per 100 possession better on offense when he’s on the court. Defensively, they’re allowing 8.6 fewer points per possession with him out there as well.
As a net plus-30.9 points per 100 possessions, Lopez has the highest positive on-off differential of anyone on the team. Middleton ranks second at plus-24.7. Four games is a small sample size, but thus far Lopez’s presence has been a boon for Milwaukee.
Heading into Friday’s 7 p.m. contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center, the Bucks will again have to count on Lopez producing at both ends. On offense, he’s a key part of the floor spacing that forms the foundation of everything they do. At the other end, he’ll again be matched up with a precocious big man in Minnesota’s all-star center Karl-Anthony Towns.
“We just have to continue to be committed night in and night out,” Lopez said when asked how to keep the momentum from Milwaukee’s unbeaten start going. “We can’t get restless or lazy or complacent with what we’re doing. We have to come out hungry every night and ready to prove to the league the kind of team that we are and we know we are in this locker room.”