Brook Lopez’s ‘overlooked’ defensive genius is better than ever

MILWAUKEE — The question to Bucks guard George Hill wasn’t all that controversial. It was a simple one about what a steal from the second quarter of the Bucks’ 119-111 victory over the Trail Blazers on Monday might reveal about one of his teammates. But Hill still met it with a smirk and question of his own.

“Do you want my honest opinion?” Hill asked The Athletic. “He should have been Defensive Player of the Year for many years now.”

Hill wasn’t talking about Giannis Antetokounmpo, a five-time All-Defensive team honoree and the 2019-20 winner of the award. Nor was Hill talking about Jrue Holiday, a four-time All-Defensive team honoree described by many as the league’s best defensive guard.

Instead, Hill was talking about Brook Lopez, someone with just one All-Defense second-team honor to his name.

“There’s been plenty of times where I thought he’s Defensive Player of the Year,” Hill continued to The Athletic. “I don’t think he gets any credit for it.”

While Lopez’s defensive contribution might have gone under the radar in previous seasons, it has been impossible to ignore this season. On Monday, Lopez added another five blocks to his league-leading tally (44) on the season. He is now averaging 2.8 blocks per game, which would best his career-high average of 2.4 blocks per game from the 2019-20 season.

Without even hearing what Hill said five minutes earlier, Holiday gave The Athletic nearly the exact same response when Lopez’s defensive efforts were mentioned.

“Defensive Player of the Year,” Holiday said. “He should have been before that too.”

Lopez’s five blocks on Monday were impressive, but that steal might have been his most spectacular play of the night.

With three minutes and 45 seconds remaining in the second quarter, Lopez waited near the rim while Blazers center Jusuf Nurkić stood in the dunker spot underneath the basket on the left side. Lopez watched intently as Portland forward Josh Hart initiated a dribble handoff with teammate Jerami Grant at the top of the key. Grant sized up and put the ball in between his legs at the free-throw line, while Lopez began to stalk his prey. Grant then used a final move to get a step on primary defender Bobby Portis.

That is when Lopez attacked. As Grant took off for a right-handed floating finger roll, Lopez jumped as high as he could off two feet from just in front of the rim. Grant realized he wouldn’t be able to finish over the top of Lopez as the Bucks’ big man contested the shot with his right hand, so he tried sneak a pass around him to Nurkić cutting out from underneath the basket.

It didn’t work.

With his right hand extended up above his head to protect against a layup, Lopez extended his left hand out beyond the left side of his body and deflected Grant’s pass. Instead of tipping the ball out of bounds, Lopez cradled the ball back toward himself. The ball fell to the ground, where the two players fought for control. In the end, Lopez tipped it to Bucks guard Jevon Carter, who dribbled down the floor and nailed a three.

The play happened so quickly in real time that it was hard to comprehend everything Lopez did in a matter of seconds. But it was a perfect distillation of Lopez’s preternatural defensive skill from him. It did n’t just show the impact of his size of him. It also showcased his timing, technique, instincts, unique form of athleticism, touch and hand-eye coordination all working in concert to make a play most big men can only dream of executing.

“That’s elite,” Holiday said of the steal, which he admired while resting on the bench. “Not too many 7-foot-1 dudes are doing that, especially at his position. Again, I feel like people are just seeing it now and talking about it, but I think the year they had him and RoLo (Robin Lopez), he should have won Defensive Player of the Year. I think maybe Giannis won Defensive Player of the Year that year. It’s tough because we do have two great defensive players back there, but what Brook’s doing this year is elite.”

While Hill and Holiday focused on the lack of attention Lopez’s defense has received in the past, his shot-blocking partner on the backline suggested that Lopez is better than ever this season.

“No, no, no, this year is different,” Antetokounmpo said after a 37-point performance in Monday’s win.” This year is different. Brooke, this year is different. He’s averaging 2.8 blocks per game. And not only that, he makes people shoot tough floaters over him. And he just helps everybody defensively. He’s always there for us.

“And this year, he gets some blocks that are so tough to get. He moves so well. I think he worked extremely hard on his body this offseason, because he wasn’t able to play the game. He didn’t have a healthy season last year, he came at the end. So I think his focus this year was to be healthy, to be available for the team, to be in better shape. And we’ve played 16, 17 games so far this year. And he’s done that for the team and he’s a beast defensively right now. People fear him, and I’m happy that he’s on our team and I don’t have to go against him.”

Debates over the most athletic big men in the NBA rarely include Lopez, but he is moving better than he has in many years following last season’s back surgery. He is regularly blocking shots with quick bits of explosion that continue to catch guards by surprise.

On Monday night, Lopez got both Blazers guard Anfernee Simons and Grant by quickly jumping and erasing floaters designed to test his ability to get off the ground quickly.

Lopez is still strong enough to handle more traditional post play as well, as he already showed against 76ers center Joel Embiid.

In drop pick-and-roll coverage — the Bucks’ preferred scheme under coach Mike Budenholzer — many big men struggle with the need to “play two,” a basketball shorthand phrase to describe when the screener’s defender must simultaneously stop their own man getting open and deter the players with the ball in their hands. While some bigs feel helpless in those moments, they’re exactly where Lopez thrives. He’s adept at throwing his arms up at different times, juking at ballhandlers to see if he can get them to pick up their dribble earlier than they should.

“I can understand it. I can get it. I feel like I think how he thinks, but I just can’t do it,” Holiday told The Athletic of Lopezs defensive tricks. “I’m not 7-1. I’m not as athletic as him. I don’t have that touch where I’m able to body up that way. But for him to do it and get blocks and steals and grab them out the air, man, you don’t see anyone else in the league doing that.”

“There’s people that juke, but to be able to juke and then both get the contest on the guard as well as protect from the lob, no, I don’t see any other people doing it,” Holiday added.

While his teammates marvel at specific plays Lopez makes on any given night, Budenholzer believes he should get more respect defensively because of what he does every night.

“One of the things that’s probably most difficult in life is consistency,” Budenholzer said. “And it feels like Brook Lopez is just, night after night after night, anchoring our defense. It takes great mental discipline, great mental attention to detail what he does; he has a knack for it. We’re incredibly fortunate that he’s bringing that consistency to our team. I think it kind of sets the tone for everybody else.”

Thus far this season, the Bucks have posted the league’s best defensive rating, giving up 105.3 points per 100 possessions. While Antetokounmpo and Holiday have both been the usual spectacular selves on that end, Lopez has been the center of the Bucks’ strategy in all 16 games. If Hill and his teammates can do anything about it, they’re going to try and make sure their big man gets the credit he deserves this season.

“There’s not highlights about it. They’re just blocked shots, they’re not the highlight plays,” Hill said of Lopez’s defensive play. “But if you’re talking about protecting the rim, blocking shots, fear coming in there? I think he’s one of the best in the league, and I think people need to start giving him credit. I think he’s been overlooked for a lot of years now. I think it’s time to start giving him respect as Defensive Player of the Year.”


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GO DEEPER

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(Top photo of Brook Lopez blocking Anfernee Simons’ floater: Benny Sieu / USA Today)

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