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The Eastern Conference Finals were supposed to be all about Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. And for stretches of the Milwaukee Bucks’ 108-100 win over the Toronto Raptors in Game 1, that was the case.
The Raptors had no answer for the Bucks’ shooting guard in a center’s body. He finished with 29 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and two assists on 12-of-21 shooting (4-of-11 from three).
Milwaukee Bucks @Bucks
A playoff CAREER-HIGH 29 points from Brook!!
“This is the Brook we all know and we all love,” Antetokounmpo told reporters after the game. “We want him to be aggressive, especially in this series. Marc Gasol is trying to be active, trying to help a lot, and he’s going to be wide open most of the time, and he’s going to knock down shots like he did tonight.”
Lopez has made teams pay for leaving him open all season, and that includes shots from well beyond the arc. Above the break, the NBA three-point line is just under 24 feet to the rim. In 2018-19, Lopez went 38-of-102 (37.3 percent) on shots from at least 28 feet.
That kind of range from an opposing center puts any team, including the defensively stout Raptors, in a sort of pick-your-poison situation. Marc Gasol can either hug up on Lopez four or five feet outside the line and give the lane to Giannis, or he can play free safety and hope Lopez doesn’t burn him, as he does on this wild kickout from Giannis:
You see, Lopez doesn’t even need the ball right in the shooting pocket to bail his team out of a possession. He’s become so adept with traditional shooting guard skills, like getting the ball from anywhere to his shooting motion in a snap, that Giannis doesn’t even need pinpoint accuracy passing out of high-tension drives.
On Wednesday, Gasol and the Raptors did a solid enough job crowding those Giannis takes. Somehow, holding him to 24 points on 7-of-16 shooting feels like something of a success. But Lopez did indeed burn them from the outside. He finished 4-of-11 from deep, but he was 3-of-5 in the fourth quarter alone. Milwaukee outscored Toronto 32-17 in that final frame, turning a seven-point deficit into an eight-point win.
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The Bucks have used their center to invert the floor all season. When your best player can’t light it up from the outside, you need a supporting cast that can. And Lopez is perfect for them at center.
He’d already started to expand his game prior to this season. Over his first eight years in the league, Lopez was 3-of-31 (9.7 percent) from three. In 2016-17 and 2017-18, he was 246-of-712 (34.6 percent). During his inaugural campaign with the Bucks, he went 187-of-512 (36.5 percent). A whopping 65.1 percent of the shots he took for Milwaukee were threes.
However, Lopez’ stroke was a bit off heading into Wednesday night, and he entered the series’ opening game just 12-of-43 (27.9 percent) in the postseason. The magic seemed to be wearing off during this playoff run.
Or, at least, the magic seemed to be wearing off to outside observers.
Lopez told reporters his teammates have been in his ear the last few weeks, telling him: “‘Keep shooting the ball. You just need one to go down. Keep letting it fly.'”
If the lid is off the rim for Lopez, Toronto could be in trouble. During regular-season games in which Lopez hit at least 50 percent of his attempts from deep, the Bucks had an average point differential of plus-9.6—nearly a full point above their average (plus-8.8).
What’s perhaps even scarier for the Raptors is that, again, they held Giannis in check, relatively speaking.
Milwaukee’s depth has been an underrated aspect of its success all season. The Bucks were able to get away with playing their MVP candidate just 32.8 minutes per game throughout 2018-19 because they have several guys they can trust in big moments like the Eastern Conference Finals.
Lopez was just the headliner on Wednesday.
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Elsewhere in Game 1, Malcolm Brogdon came off the bench to score 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting. George Hill was 0-of-6 from the field, but he had four steals and four assists. Pat Connaughton recorded six boards and a block in just 11 minutes. Nikola Mirotic and Khris Middleton both struggled with their shots, but each hit a big three in the second half.
Milwaukee is legitimately eight or nine players deep, and pretty much everyone is capable of adding more to a box score than points. Even when a given player’s shot isn’t falling, he can help.
This front office has done a masterful job assembling a team that fits its superstar’s strengths. Giannis and his teammates enjoy a symbiosis that makes the Bucks as scary as any team left playing.
Lopez provided the Game 1 fireworks, but the Raptors can’t know who might provide the encore Friday night in Game 2.