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Home » Basketball » How Brook Lopez turned Splash Mountain into a Bucks game-changer

How Brook Lopez turned Splash Mountain into a Bucks game-changer

MILWAUKEE — There aren’t many 7-foot centers who make enough 3-pointers to weigh the relative merits of their go-to celebrations.

Brook Lopez of the Milwaukee Bucks is one such anomaly. He coveted Eric Bledsoe‘s three-finger salute but didn’t want to be a copycat, so he settled on blowing on the fingers of his shooting hand.

“I’m cooling it off a little bit,” Lopez said. “That’s my thing.”

Nothing about Lopez’s 3-point shooting is ordinary. This season he attempted 512 3-pointers — the most by a 7-footer in league history.

While Giannis Antetokounmpo has dominated headlines for the Bucks, Lopez has been his shooting sidekick, opening the paint for Antetokounmpo’s drives and dunks while making defenses pay if they don’t step out to guard him.

As the Bucks launch what they hope will be a deep playoff run, Lopez’s shooting is already making an impact. In Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against the Detroit Pistons, Lopez scored 14 points and hit two 3-pointers in just 25 minutes. Detroit center Andre Drummond struggled to find an effective defensive role against Milwaukee’s spread offense. At times, Pistons coach Dwane Casey tried to adjust by moving Drummond off Lopez and onto Antetokounmpo, a less proven shooting threat.

“He has spaced the floor so well for us all season long,” Antetokounmpo said. “He has been hitting 3s and he is making defenses adjust to him. When he came out in the beginning of Game 1 and hit some 3s, they had to adjust and put Thon [Maker] on him and Drummond on me. I am kind of getting upset sometimes when he started hitting the 3s because then I have Andre Drummond guarding me.”

The Bucks outscored the Pistons by 35 points when Lopez was on the court, a clear sign they had won the stylistic matchup, although every Milwaukee starter sported a hefty plus rating.

Lopez’s path to being such an important floor-spacer began as a curly-haired kid, but nothing in his first eight NBA seasons suggested that this is where his career would wind up.

“I always had confidence in myself shooting,” Lopez said. “I believed I could shoot it in NBA games one day, but at this level? This many? No. I didn’t see it.”

THE AWKWARD LANDINGS, crunching of bones, countless setbacks and excruciating physical therapy sessions all seem far away to Lopez now.

Between December 2011 and January 2014, the 31-year-old suffered four different foot injuries and missed well over 100 games. Numerous surgeries left him with metal screws in his foot. During his tenure with the Brooklyn Nets, one of the trainers began referring to Lopez’s “bionic foot” — a nickname worn proudly by the comic-strip aficionado.

The repeated foot injuries forced Lopez to change his game. Rather than pound on the block play after play, he began turning to jump shots more often as a way to limit his exposure to bumps and bruises. Lopez’s individual transition couldn’t have come at a better time. With a 3-point revolution sweeping the league, he realized he could extend his range even farther. Three years after he first flirted with shooting from outside regularly, Lopez has become one of the sport’s premier shooting centers. He was fourth among starting centers in 3-point accuracy during the regular season, at 37 percent.

When Lopez freely lets fly from near the logo in Fiserv Forum, he utilizes a smooth stroke he began honing as a child in Fresno, California. His earliest memories of shooting came out of necessity during battles with his two older brothers, Alex and Chris, who were big enough to push him around. Before long, he discovered he could back out of the paint to get cleaner looks, refining his jump shot into a weapon he could deploy in their sibling rivalries. It wasn’t long before that skill translated to games.

His 3-pointer became more fine-tuned in middle school. Lopez and his identical twin brother, Robin, wanted to be on the court at the same time. To make that work, Brook stepped out to play power forward so Robin, now a 7-foot center for the Chicago Bulls, could play inside.

“It just kind of grew out of trying to have a symbiotic game with Robin,” Lopez said. “We liked teaming up and working together to dominate.”

Brook Lopez was drafted 10th overall by the Nets in 2008, a time when most teams still expected their centers to do their damage inside. During his first eight seasons in the NBA, Lopez attempted a total of 31 3-pointers and flexed his shooting touch only from midrange.

But when the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets ushered in an outside-in approach to NBA offenses in the mid-2010s, Lopez hopped on board. In 2016-17, he attempted 387 3s — an astonishing number for a center who had barely dabbled earlier in his career.

The Nets traded Lopez to the Los Angeles Lakers for D’Angelo Russell in June 2017 and he continued to work on his range, attempting 325 3-pointers in L.A. before becoming a free agent last summer.

ALONG CAME THE BUCKS, who snagged him on a one-year, $3.4 million deal.

“At our coaches’ retreat, we all said, ‘We got Brook Lopez at one year, low money?'” assistant coach Josh Longstaff recalled. “With the way we wanted to play, he was perfect. We were like, ‘We can’t believe we got this guy.'”

His signing with Milwaukee was serendipitous. New coach Mike Budenholzer needed a center to keep the floor spread around Antetokounmpo, and Lopez needed a coach who would encourage him to shoot — no matter how many times he missed.

“He has helped this team so far in so many ways offensively and defensively,” Antetokounmpo said. “We want him to keep shooting a lot of 3s.”

The Bucks not only gave him the green light, they continued to reconfigure his shot selection. As recently as 2014-15, more than 18 percent of Lopez’s shots were long 2s and just 1 percent were 3-pointers. This season, only 2 percent of Lopez’s shots were long 2s, while a whopping 65 percent of his shots were 3-pointers. Lopez’s 187 made 3s ranked 17th in the league.

Whereas the Lakers had treated Lopez more like a role player, the Bucks viewed him as a central piece for both their No. 3 offense and No. 1 defense.

“I don’t know if I realized to the extent they wanted me shooting, really,” Lopez said. “I remember talking to Bud on the phone and it’s absolutely something he brought up. But we really drilled that stuff. Our offense is predicated on shooting.”

The Bucks also have benefited from Lopez’s exceptional health. For the first time since the 2010-11 season, Lopez played in more than 75 games. Lopez actually was healthy enough to play in all 82 games this season, but with the top seed in the NBA clinched, Budenholzer rested him in the regular-season finale. It was the only game he missed all season.

Considering Lopez’s reliability and the fact he’s having one of the best shooting seasons ever for a stretch-5, the Bucks’ signing turned into a bargain.

If there is another center whose game is comparable to Lopez’s, Longstaff couldn’t name one. Neither could Lopez.

“It’s super unique,” Lopez said, sheepishly.

Lopez’s low-key, oddball personality also has been a fit with the fun-loving Bucks. He enjoys matching the 50 states with their capitals as a pastime and owns a house at Walt Disney World where each room is themed (Disney is the parent company of ESPN). Instead of rocking the latest in high-end fashion, he favors a leather, cross-body book bag, faded T-shirts with odes to cartoon characters and loudly colored striped polo shirts. As a show of his appreciation to his new organization at Christmas, Lopez gifted chocolate boxes to all 70-plus Bucks staffers who work at the team’s practice facility.

The self-described “eccentric” endeared himself to his coaches by showing up 45 minutes early to practices to hone his shooting ability. And the result of that extra work has earned Lopez the nickname “Splash Mountain” among Bucks fans.

The incredible transformation has been an important reason why the Bucks won an NBA-best 60 games and are 15-point favorites against the Pistons in Game 2 on Wednesday.

“All of a sudden,” Longstaff said, “it was like, ‘This is scary for opponents.'”

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