In the days leading up to the NBA Finals, I thought the Ayton-Lopez game would have been the most crucial game in the series. NBA All-Defense First-Teamer Jrue Holiday could put the finishing touches on Chris Paul. Khris Middleton and PJ Tucker could rotate to help Devin Booker. Giannis could muscle Jae Crowder. So, whether or not Deandre Ayton of Phoenix could successfully control the paint against Brook Lopez of Milwaukee seemed to be a crucial factor in Phoenix’s success. Well, during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, that was not the case.
Instead, the Suns looked at Lopez. They used ball screens on almost every possession to secure the match they wanted, and more often than not, that match was either Devin Booker versus Brook Lopez or Chris Paul versus Brook Lopez. The first three quarters of Game 1 were full of these forced disagreements, and quite funny, that’s what the Bucks wanted. As Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals turned around, the Bucks put in place a drop-cover dosing weight – a defense that allows deep glances from above the top of the ball screens, but makes it more difficult. to get a nice look on the inside. Trae Young is a pretty decent shooter, so the defense allowed Young to go for 48 points on the 17-for-34 shot while the Falcons defeated Milwaukee, 116-113.
From Game 2 onwards, the Bucks began using a switch on these ball screens. When Clint Capela or John Collins put up a screen for Young, the Bucks shut down their man, making it harder for Young to get those quick shots over the top. It worked. While Young was also able to shoot effectively throughout the series, the lack of that quick offense option made it much harder for the Hawks to score at all. Not to mention, Brook Lopez did a phenomenal job closing Young.
Devin Booker and Chris Paul look like completely different animals. Booker quickly passed in front of Lopez for every possession, so much so that other Bucks had been called in to help and Booker could only throw the ball to an open teammate for a nice look from downtown. Despite shooting only 8-of-21 from the field and 1-of-8 from deep, Booker walked away with an offensive rating of 106 and his seventh highest Game Point of this postseason. Chris Paul isn’t as fast as Booker, but he was probably even more effective against Lopez. Paul danced around Lopez all night using backhands and crossovers to find open roads. At times it doesn’t seem right. No matter what Lopez tried to do, the Suns could counter him.
Now, what can the Bucks do to avoid a similar demonstration Thursday night in Game 2? Returning to fall coverage? No. The Suns were ninth in the league in that percentage of three points this season, and they were too the most effective midfield shooting team in the NBA. So giving the Suns more space than necessary would not be a good plan.
The best option for the Bucks might be to go small with Giannis at 5, Tucker at 4, and either Connaughton or Middleton at 3. Giannis has the muscle to deal with Ayton in the paint. Tucker can handle himself against Crowder even in the post. While these encounters are slightly less favorable at the bottom, the Bucks will be able to throw a faster lineup that could rely on Paul without fear of Paul driving away from them, or staying with Booker when he tries to move on a shooting range. Lopez might also see the action as a rotating piece, but if the Bucks want to win their first NBA title since 1971, Lopez might need to take a back seat to this series. There is perhaps a strategy that I am missing, and perhaps Mike Budenholzer has an ace up his sleeve which will allow Lopez to stay on the floor while preventing the Suns from accompanying him with his guards, but as far as I can see, hopes of the Bucks championship seem to drop every minute Lopez is on the ground.