The Milwaukee Bucks have remained one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference despite missing their defensive anchor in the middle. But with Brook Lopez set to make his return on Monday, the Bucks are now officially ready to defend their NBA title.
Lopez has missed all but one game this season. His absence looked like it could squash Milwaukee’s chances of going back-to-back. Instead, his timely return might give his Bucks defense more confidence heading into the playoffs, which is a troubling prospect for other Eastern Conference contenders.
Brook Lopez returns to the Bucks on Monday
The Bucks have (42-26) are just 2.5 games back of the Miami Heat for the No. 1 seed in the East. They could make a final push with a fully healthy roster.
Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that Lopez is set to make his return to Milwaukee’s rotation after about three months on the shelf. The 33-year-old underwent back surgery in December, which appears to have remedied the chronic pain that beset him earlier in the season.
For the casual NBA fan, a veteran center might not seem like an overly impactful piece in a league now dominated mainly by guards and wings. But the Bucks have long understood Lopez’s value.
Giannis Antetokounmpo begged for Lopez to return in November with the Bucks stumbling out of the gate. Over four months later, his wish has finally been granted.
Lopez has a significant impact on Milwaukee’s team defense
The Bucks have a former Defensive Player of the Year in Antetokounmpo. Jrue Holiday is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game. Yet, it’s been a struggle for Milwaukee on that end of the floor.
Head coach Mike Budenholzer’s team ranks 15th in defensive rating. It’s the second consecutive season in which the Bucks have slipped in that category after they led the NBA in defensive rating during the 2019-20 campaign.
Things have been especially ugly in the last month. According to NBA.com, Milwaukee ranks 21st in defensive rating since Feb. 14. The Bucks don’t give up many points in the paint, but their pick-and-roll defense hasn’t been as sound, and the rotations haven’t been very crisp.
Lopez should make a difference here.
The 2019-20 All-Defensive Second Team member frees up so much defensively because of his exceptional rim protection and weak-side abilities. With Lopez in more of a typical 5-man role, Giannis can take more risks and be at his best flying all over the court and impacting everything with his length. The Bucks don’t need Antetokounmpo to focus so much attention on guarding the paint and clearing the boards.
Additionally, Lopez gives the Bucks more depth and another big capable of stretching the floor in screen-and-roll. He’s as much an asset in those areas as he is defensively.
Ultimately, though, Lopez’s interior toughness should make all the difference for a Milwaukee squad in need of those attributes.
Beasts of the East?
Could we see a Bucks-Phoenix Suns NBA Finals for a second straight season? It’s entirely possible, though Milwaukee faces a loaded Eastern Conference.
The Heat are as well balanced as any team in the NBA. Joel Embiid, James Harden, and the Philadelphia 76ers are surely hungry to capitalize on championship promises. The Chicago Bulls might go on a run with Alex Caruso returning to the lineup.
However, the Bucks are all but unstoppable offensively because of their dominance inside and efficiency from the perimeter. They have ample shot-creation and get to the charity stripe.
With Brook Lopez returning to the fold, Milwaukee could have the missing piece it needed to capture another Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.