Milwaukee (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo says Brooke Lopez’s absence for most of the season has caused the Milwaukee Bucks to appreciate the 7-foot legend to a new level.
“We took him lightly for many years,” the two-time MVP said. “I’m not taking him anymore.”
Lopez is back with the Bucks after losing 67 games to a back injury that required surgery. He made his first start since season opener Tuesday in a 126-98 home win over the Chicago Bulls after coming off the bench for three road games last week.
Lopez’s return, along with the acquisition of 6-foot-10 veteran center Serge Ibaka on trade deadline, gives the defending champions the frontcourt depth he lacked for most of the season.
“I feel great right now,” Lopez said.
The Bucks have slowly worked to bring Lopez back into the lineup. He played his first two games 15 minutes early, 20 on Saturday and 24 on Tuesday.
But he has already shown what the box was missing when he was out. The defending champion’s defense was not the same without him.
In his first start since coming back from surgery, the Bucks stopped the Bulls shooting 42.4%. Lopez scored two 3-pointers in less than two minutes.
“Brook is a cheat code,” Antetokounmpo said. “He can rebound the ball. He can make the ball for us. He can make 3. His defense is incredible. He’s making it difficult for anyone who gets into the paint. I’m so glad he’s back.”
Lopez, who turns 34 on April 1, says that since he started playing again, his back has given him no cause for concern. Lopez had back surgery on December 2.
“We’ve been lucky so far,” Lopez said. “There hasn’t been any flare-ups or problems or anything really.”
Lopez’s return gives Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer a chance to test out various frontcourt combinations.
The most notable change has been the return of Bobby Portis to the bench role he performed during the Bucks’ title run last season. Portis started when Lopez was out and averaged 15 points and 9.1 rebounds in both categories, a career high.
“Obviously, Brooke is the starting center for the Bucks,” Portis said. “I came back to this team knowing he was the starting center. It’s normal for me to go back to my old role. I signed back into this team so potentially, I wasn’t going to be a starter anyway.
The Bucks now have plenty of options with Lopez and Antetokounmpo starting while Portis and Ibaka come off the bench. During the Bulls game, the Bucks experiment by placing Antetokounmpo, Portis, and Ibaka on the floor together.
“We’re really versatile,” said guard Jew Holiday. “We can go up against teams that can have a bit more length. We can also go against teams that are smaller but maybe more athletic. I think it’s great to be able to have options. Man, it’s awesome to have Brooke back. ,
Although Lopez isn’t a high-volume rebounder at this stage of his career—he hasn’t averaged more than 5 per game since 2016-17—the Bucks say he still provides a huge impact across the boards. In Lopez’s return to the starting lineup, the Bucks overcame the Bulls 53–33.
Budenholzer said, “Brook has many, many positive influences, but his ability to just take space and create better rebounding angles for his teammates is really more than anyone else, it’s just something we’ve seen on a regular basis.” have seen.” “When Brooke plays, our defensive rebounding percentage is much better, sometimes elite.”
Lopez will try to gain momentum after a long layoff during the Bucks’ final 10 regular-season games as they prepare for the playoffs and compete for seeding. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Miami Heat and half a game ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.
The silver lining behind Lopez’s long absence is that, assuming he has no further back problems, he should be fresher than usual for the post season.
“Personally, I’m going to peak at the right time,” Lopez said. “And that’s what the team is actually doing as well.”
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