The Boston Celtics averaged 46.5 points in the paint and attempted 24.1 shots in the restricted area per game during the regular season. In Round 1 against the Brooklyn Nets, those numbers jumped to 48.5 points and 27.0 attempts. However, against the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 2, the numbers have plummeted to 31.0 points and 20.0 attempts.
Some may see this as the Giannis Antetokounmpo effect. He’s a two-time MVP and former Defensive Player of the Year. However, while Antetokounmpo’s interior defense has been solid, he’s not the player Boston fears. That’s Brook Lopez.
The 7’0 behemoth out of Stanford has been terrorizing the Celtics in the paint. He’s averaging 1.8 blocks a night in Round 2, and his mother presence down low has been enough to make the Celtics hesitate. Just look at how he defends two players at once before making Daniel Theis look like a middle-schooler.
Milwaukee has Lopez play in drop coverage, protecting the paint rather than helping at the three-point line. This makes life extremely difficult for the Celtics, as they often cannot get quality looks at the rim. His presence alone is enough to deter Boston from entering the paint.
Look at this play is from Game 1. Tatum gets around Wesley Matthews but is immediately met by a wall of Bucks defenders, spearheaded by Lopez. He’s forced to kick the ball out to Horford, who then settles for a contested mid-range shot.
This has been Milwaukee’s game plan for the entirety of the series. They protect the paint at all costs, giving up a ton of open three-pointers. This led to the Celtics shooting a whopping 50 threes in Game 1, a number which has shrunk throughout the series.
When Boston chooses to attack Lopez rather than kick it out, he makes them pay with either an elite contest or a big-time block. Tatum tried to go at him in Game 1, but it did not end well.
The Celtics have shot 47.7% in the restricted area when guarded by Lopez. He’s been the final hurdle of Milwaukee’s defense that Boston hasn’t quite jumped over yet. However, at the end of Game 4, they briefly found a way to get around him.
With Al Horford playing lights out, Lopez was forced to chase him around the court. Whenever Lopez left Horford, the Celtics big man made him pay with a back-breaking three. This allowed Boston to get into the paint and work. Of the nineteen shots they attempted in the fourth quarter of Game 4, only five were threes.
These two buckets from Smart were direct results of Horford’s off-ball movement. He cleared out the paint by dragging Lopez with him wherever he went. In turn, Smart was able to go to work down low.
Lopez is so worried about Horford nailing a three that he’s forced to leave the paint. And when he thing to protect the paint, Horford made him pay.
The Celtics abused this hesitancy from Lopez over and over again in the fourth, as they knew it would result in a mismatch in the paint. They would either attack a smaller defender down low or dump the ball off to Horford to make a play whenever they got the chance.
The other area where Lopez has killed the Celtics has been on the offensive glass. Horford spends most of his time defending Antetokounmpo, which means there’s almost always a smaller defender guarding Lopez. With Robert Williams out of Game 4, the Celtics felt the effect of this more than ever.
Lopez nabbed five offensive rebounds in Game 4 and has averaged 3.5 per game against the Celtics this series. With no size down low to compete with him, Lopex has been able to feast on the glass, earning the Bucks plenty of second-chance opportunities.
Boston hasn’t found a solution to this issue yet, as Lopez has continuously dominated the offensive glass. Putting Grant Williams on Antetokounmpo and allowing Horford to guard Lopez could help, but Horford is a much bigger body to throw at Antetokounmpo. Up to this point, Lopez’s rebounding has helped the Bucks score 12.8 second-chance points per game.
The 34-year-old Milwaukee center has worked wonders for the Bucks on both ends of the court. With Boston spending so much energy game-planning for Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, they’ve allowed Lopez to run free. While Antetokounmpo and Holiday are the primary offensive options for the Bucks, Lopez has been their go-to guy on the opposite end of the floor. And his offensive rebounding allows him to be just as effective on offense. Tailoring their gameplan for Lopez may not be the top priority, but moving forward, it at least needs to be on Boston’s radar.