Brook Lopez is making a big difference on the defensive glass

(Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
(Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Milwaukee Bucks offense is taking the early season credit for their blistering start to the season, but don’t disregard a fundamental element of the game that has taken a monumental leap in the early going.

On April 28, 2018, the Bucks had just been eliminated by the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series. It had been a compelling matchup that swung violently depending on which team had the home court advantage.

Among the myriad issues the Bucks couldn’t solve, to support the stunning individual performances of the human flame-thrower Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo, rebounding the ball was near the top of the list.

Across the seven games, the Bucks were outrebounded on the defensive glass 302-270, and 75-39 on the offensive end. Second-chance points became a factor as a result, with the Celtics averaging 14.7 per game, compared with just 6.9 for Milwaukee. Al Horford and Aron Baynes continually worked over the Bucks big man rotation of John Henson and Thon Maker on the glass, picking up key easy scoring opportunities that that Milwaukee could ill-afford to surrender.

The Bucks finished the 2017-18 regular season ranked dead last in overall rebounding, grabbing just 39.8 per game. Through the first eight games of 2018-19, they are the number one rebounding team in the NBA, hauling in 54.3 per contest.

A key to the sudden surety on the glass is the offseason acquisition of Brook Lopez.

Antetokounmpo is racking up rebounds and it’s no coincidence that he has been able to snare 13.7 boards a game in just 31.4 minutes of playing time when you take a closer look at the work Lopez is putting into occuping opposing big men.

In the clip above you see a simple example of Lopez boxing out Joel Embiid. Lopez has little interest in collecting the board, that’s not his aim, but by taking Embiid out of the frame it allows Antetokounmpo to gather the ball and quickly start the Bucks transition offense.

After the Bucks blew out the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier in the season, I asked Antetokounmpo about the impact both Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova have had on the team, particularly in relation to the spike in rebounding rate.

“It’s big,” Antetokounmpo said assertively. “I know they are always going to space the floor for me and they will knock down shots.”

“On the rebounding, it’s not me, it’s Brook. He’s boxing out for me and I’m just going and getting the ball. He’s doing a great job boxing out and he lets me get them, so I want to thank Brook for that.”

Giving Antetokounmpo the freedom to fly in for the rebound and hit the ground running has been vital to the Bucks high-volume 3-point shooting, letting them get out on the break and find open shooters before the defense is set. Lopez, in particular, is benefiting, averaging 5.9 3-point attempts per game, with 2.5 of those coming in the first six seconds of the shot clock.

Lopez is well aware of the pressure a hit-the-ground-running Antetokounmpo can place on the defense and spoke about his role in the paint in regards to allowing the franchise star to aggressively hunt rebounds.

“We realised that [rebounding] was something that we wanted to improve on from last year. We came in knowing we need to put bodies on people and then go find the ball,” Lopez told The Step Back.

But is there anything tactically advanced in what Lopez is doing out there?

“It’s just basic rebounding fundamentals and I think we do a really good job of that as a team. Whoever gets it gets it, we have confidence with most of the guys on our team just grabbing the rebound and pushing it up the floor into our offense.”

Ultimately, the improvement on the boards is giving the opposition far fewer opportunities for those repeat possessions that haunted the Bucks in the postseason. They are currently giving up just 11 second-chance points per contest, good for the second-fewest in the league.

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The reduced reliance on the slender frames and at times shaky hands of Henson and Maker has been as big of an addition as any in Milwaukee, and both backup big men will benefit greatly from working beside the veteran center, now in his 11th NBA campaign.

You can reel off all the ways the Lopez signing was one of the steals of the offseason, but there’s really only one reason that matters: He makes Antetokounmpo’s life easier. That in itself is gold.