Circumstances that still have people around the league scratching their heads allowed for the Bucks to sign Lopez to a $3.4-million contract more than a week into free agency. Instead of staying with the Lakers, something he says he was willing to do, Lopez took a job firing threes, grabbing rebounds and blocking shots on the NBA’s best team, leading them to 108-100 win in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
He scored a team-high 29 points to go with 11 rebounds and four blocks as the Bucks improved to 9-1 this postseason.
“This couldn’t have worked out better,” he told The Times.
Instead of being dragged down with instability, trade rumors and a disconnected front office, Lopez found himself part of one the league’s strongest cultures, a team where misses do no harm, where mistakes are just a chance for improvement and where three more wins earns you a chance at an NBA title.
“In a big moment,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said, “that was a great Brook Lopez tonight.”
Lopez and the Bucks hadn’t played since closing out the Boston Celtics in Game 5 a week ago, and like any team removed from the playoff grind for that long, they struggled early as they recaptured their edge.
Lopez missed all three of his triples in the first quarter and the Bucks hit only three of 15. Even as the Bucks settled into the game, Lopez struggled from deep. But while those shots weren’t falling, he was doing other things to remain active, grabbing offensive rebounds and scoring in the paint, where the Bucks outdid the Raptors 44-26.
“I think we did a good job of sticking with what we’ve been doing all postseason long,” Lopez said.
And sticking to it means continuing to launch. It’s been a massive part of what the Bucks have done all season, and even their first conference finals game since 2001 couldn’t get them to stop.
“[Budenholzer] wants us to trust one another, keep moving the ball and if we’re open, shoot the ball,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “That’s what we’ve been doing all year, and that’s what we’re going to keep doing.”
And Lopez doesn’t need to be told twice. He scored 13 points, including a trio of three-pointers, in the fourth quarter alone as the Bucks pulled away from a tired Toronto team.
He’s undergone a career redefinition, transforming from an All-Star post player to one of the NBA’s deepest shooting threats. Wednesday against the Raptors, eight of his 11 three-point shots came from at least 27 feet away from the basket.
It’s the kind of floor spacing the Lakers’ craved all season. And instead of clearing driving lanes for LeBron James, Lopez’s spacing opened things for Antetokounmpo, who had a quiet 24-point, 14-rebound, six-assist game — at least in a relative sense.
It’s a promising sign for the Bucks, who have relied so heavily on Antetokounmpo with the primary support coming from Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe. Neither of those two was particularly sharp on offense, but guard Malcolm Brogdon more than made up for it. In only his second game back after missing the last 21 because of a foot injury, Brogdon scored 15 points, and with him on the floor, the Bucks were 18 points better than Toronto.
The Raptors, though, weren’t without opportunities. Toronto led by as many as 10 in the third. Kyle Lowry had his best game of the postseason, scoring 30 on just 15 shots, and Kawhi Leonard, on a 10-for-26 night, still scored 31. But only one other Raptor managed more than six.
“I thought we played tough tonight, a tough brand of basketball for the most part,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “We gave ourselves a chance to win on the road.”
But instead of that happening, it was Lopez howling in celebration as his team pulled away. It was a testament to Milwaukee’s faith in one another and another reminder that, if you do things the right way, they seem to work out.
“I think it’s just embedded in this team,” Lopez said. “We have trust in one another that we can all take and make shots if we’re open.”
Eventually, the Bucks believe, they’ll go in.