When asked if he enjoys guarding Nikola Jokić following the Milwaukee Bucks’ 112-95 win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday night, all Brook Lopez could do was laugh.
“He makes it tough,” the Bucks big man said after three seconds of exasperated laughing. “He’s capable of doing everything offensively. He can score whenever he wants to, but he’s so great just because he makes everyone else on the floor better. And he can get get the ball to them whenever and however he wants.“
Watching just a single portion of a defensive possession against Jokić reveals why the idea of enjoyment might seem far-fetched. Look at everything Lopez did in just eight seconds against the two-time NBA MVP.
First, Lopez sprinted back to get in position. Then, once he arrived at the 3-point line, he squared up to Jokić. Then he jumped to his left, stuck his left hand out and waved it up above his head, while he simultaneously kicked his right foot out on the other side of his body, to take away passes to cutters.
When Lopez landed, he continued to flail around various body parts to deny Jokić the opportunity to pass to a cutting teammate. As Nuggets backup point guard Reggie Jackson cut off of Jokić and past Lopez, the Bucks big man kicked his foot out to the right side of his body to take away a bounce pass and then sprinted out to the 3-point line with his hands high as Jokić started to raise the ball above his head as though he was going to shoot the ball.
When Lopez closed him out and took away that shot, Jokić kicked the ball to Aaron Gordon trailing the play.
In five seconds, Lopez took away five different actions from Jokić. And that was just the start of the possession.
Every second Jokić has the ball in his hands could be the exact moment in which he takes advantage of a defender who is out of position. Make a mistake and Jokić will find an easy basket for a teammate or create an advantage for himself. The mental strain of defending Jokić is enormous, but one that Lopez eventually admitted he enjoys twice each regular season, even if it took five minutes of prodding to get him to admit it.
“It is, absolutely. Yeah, it is fun,” Lopez said of the challenge of defending Jokić. “I mean, that’s why we play, that’s why I play. So a night like tonight, absolutely fun.”
On Monday night, Jokić put up 29 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists in a losing effort. While those are still solid numbers, the Bucks made him work for everything. To get those 29 points, Jokić put up 25 shots. And while getting eight assists, Jokić also committed five turnovers. Lopez had everything to do with those struggles.
“He’s a very intelligent defender, uses his length,” Bucks coach Doc Rivers said of Lopez. “He knows what he can’t do. I think we are understanding what he can’t do, and we try not to put him in those positions. Plays at that little drop, but not all the way dropped.
“(Jokić) is a tougher player, maybe the toughest player in the league to be in any kind of drop with, and yet, Brook stopped the ball and got back a ton. So that’s pretty good stuff.”
In slowing Jokić, the Bucks slowed the Nuggets and held their opponent to fewer than 100 points for a second consecutive game. Yet, it wasn’t only about Lopez on Monday. The Nuggets ended the night short-handed with both Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sitting out the second half, but the Bucks were dominant defensively in the first half because of a return to their old form under former coach Mike Budenholzer.
During Budenholzer’s early years, the Bucks had a three-pronged defensive approach. On the ball, Eric Bledsoe fought over screens relentlessly. At the rim, Lopez waited in drop coverage for any drivers to try to get to the rim. And everywhere else, Giannis Antetokounmpo roamed all over waiting for opportunities to prowl on unsuspecting opponents.
On Monday, the Bucks used the same formula.
That started with Rivers getting a much better effort out of his guards against Nuggets guard Jamal Murray. In Rivers’ first game as coach with Milwaukee in Denver two weeks ago, he thought his players ran into entirely too many screens. So, in what has become a regular occurrence over the last few weeks, Rivers compiled a series of clips and took his guards through those moments before the team’s second effort on Murray on Monday.
“He killed us that night,” Rivers said of Murray. “And we showed pick after pick after pick that we just melted on, melted on, melted on, melted on. And Malik and those guys, they heard it enough. I mean, they’ve been sick of it, obviously, but we showed them the game before, the other night (vs. the Hornets). We didn’t get picked at all. And then we follow it (on film) with just running into picks (in the first game vs. Denver).
“And Murray’s going to make tough shots anyway, but if you’re going to run into a pick, he’s going to make them. I thought we did a great job getting over picks and fighting over them.”
The message seemed to get through to the Bucks’ guards. Look at this second-quarter effort from AJ Green:
With Green fighting over the top of screens and continuing to fight even when he got hit by a screen, the Bucks put Murray in a tough position, and then Antetokounmpo took advantage with a steal.
And that is exactly what Rivers wants Antetokounmpo to do, as the Bucks give their two-time MVP the freedom to roam defensively.
“When we can get away with it, we want Giannis on someone on the other team that he can just roam,” Rivers said. “I guess, in football, like a free safety, he’d be an amazing free safety. I mean, he does a great job of roaming around and he got to one steal from the backside and he’s always at the rim.
“What it gives us is we always have rim protection, either Brook or Giannis. And now that our guards are up in the ball and we’re taking guys off the 3, taking them off the 3 with rim protection creates in-between contested shots. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Antetokounmpo caused havoc in that role the entire night, and his ability to roam allows him to come away with this second-quarter steal:
“For a lot of years before Doc, that was my job,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I think, I kind of figured it out and it also allows you not to be in foul trouble, so it allowed me to be in passing lanes and disrupt their offense as much as possible.”
While Antetokounmpo reminded the media that he does like to take the challenge of guarding the other team’s best player and wants to continue to be given that opportunity, he understands why using him as a roamer is a logical option.
“I enjoy just disrupting people’s offense and being in the passing lane, putting my hands on the ball and try to go get rebounds and starting the offense,” Antetokounmpo said. “Because when I’m in the paint, I can also rebound the ball and I start the offense.”
On Monday, Antetokounmpo grabbed 18 rebounds, which tied a season-high for him. Under Griffin, the Bucks grabbed 73.2 percent of available defensive rebounds, which was good for 12th in the NBA. Since dismissing Griffin, they have grabbed 75.9 percent of available defensive rebounds, which is good for 7th. Those defensive boards turned into offense as Antetokounmpo regularly started the break off of rebounds, which allowed him to put up 36 points on an efficient 14-of-19 shooting from the field.
And with Lopez playing his role on Jokić, the Bucks looked like the Bucks of old, stymieing an offense led by a two-time MVP with a strong defensive effort through a three-pronged attack. The Bucks will be the first to admit they are far from perfect and still have a lot of work to do on defense, but the strides they have made in just two weeks have been impressive. That defensive improvement has been the major reason much of the roster has expressed optimism despite a 1-5 start to Rivers’ tenure in Milwaukee.
With two straight wins fueled by dominant defensive performances, maybe the results are starting to show what the team has believed internally for the last two weeks.
(Photo of Nikola Jokić and Brook Lopez: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)