MILWAUKEE -- The Milwaukee Bucks' first possession on Sunday evening was not a masterpiece. They took their time setting up a pick-and-roll with Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the former nearly threw the ball away with a risky pass. After securing possession, Giannis then dropped it down to a cutting Brook Lopez, who missed a layup but was bailed out with a foul call and got to the line for two free throws – both of which he made.
A bit sloppy, not at all how they drew it up, but ultimately good enough thanks to a big contribution from Lopez.
That turned out to be the story of the day for the Bucks, who were not at their best in Game 1 of their first-round series with the Chicago Bulls but pulled out a 93-86 win despite turning the ball over 21 times, shooting 26.3 percent from 3-point land and trailing with less than six minutes to play.
Antetokounmpo was the driving force as per usual, finishing with 27 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks, but even he needs help sometimes. In Game 1 he got it from Lopez, who was the Bucks' second-leading scorer and went for 18 points, five rebounds and two blocks in one of his best performances since returning from back surgery in March.
"[Brook was] a huge key to the game tonight," Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. "Both ends of the court he was very good. A lot of big plays, finishing around the basket. He started the game well, finished the game well, a lot of plays around the rim defensively. He was very important."
Lopez played a major role in the Bucks' quick start, throwing his weight around in the paint on both ends of the floor, and hitting a deep 3-pointer off a feed from Giannis. After the first six minutes he was matching the Bulls by himself (11 points each), and the Bucks were up by 14.
The game could have, and perhaps should have, turned into a rout from there, but the Bucks' rust and sloppiness prevented that from happening. (A scout sitting nearby in the press box remarked multiple times that he could not believe the Bucks' lack of urgency.) When Giannis picked up his fifth foul with 8:14 remaining, the Bucks were clinging to a one-point lead that would briefly disappear.
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That's when Lopez stepped up again. He checked into the game for Giannis after that foul and would not come out until there were just eight seconds remaining and the game was in hand. During that stretch he scored seven points, grabbed two rebounds, blocked a shot and helped steady the team on both sides of the ball.
His presence gave Budenholzer the confidence and flexibility to be cautious with Giannis down the stretch, popping him in and out of the game for short stretches depending on the situation. Budenholzer arguably got a bit too cute with that scheme, as Giannis ended up sitting for much of the final 90 seconds – a decision Budenholzer described as taking "a little bit of a chance" – but it worked out because of Lopez.
"Brook made some big plays," Budenholzer said. "It was good to have Brook play the way he did while Giannis was in foul trouble."
One moment, in particular, stood out. After the Bulls scored to make it a one-point game with a little over 90 seconds remaining, the Bucks came down and went to a middle pick-and-roll with Jrue Holiday and Lopez. Both defenders went to Jrue, so Holiday found him on the short roll and Lopez finished through contact for a game-changing and-one.
"Honestly, get him the ball in the middle of the paint," Holiday said. "I think I do my job of attracting two people and then Brook's taller than everybody. So get him the ball in the middle of the paint and have him make a decision. Either he has the floater or the dunk, or he dishes it to someone else… There's a lot of trust there."
After spending much of the season on the sidelines, Lopez is slowly rounding into form. His Game 1 performance was a reminder that his presence is crucial to making this Bucks team work as it is intended to. In addition to getting into the paint for his own points, he was a big reason why the Bulls shot 11-of-27 at the rim on Sunday and settled for 9-of-23 from the mid range. Against a Bulls team that lacks size, Lopez will continue to be a key factor in this series.
"Tonight in the fourth quarter he was amazing," Giannis said. "He was able to get to his spots, shoot his floaters, get to the rim, make his free throws. Defensively he was amazing, contesting shots. He's big for us, he's big. He had a great game, we need him to keep playing this way, we need him to keep helping the team any way possible. He is a big piece of who we are."