In the days leading up to the NBA Finals, I thought the Ayton-Lopez matchup was going to be the most pivotal matchup of the series. NBA All-Defense First-Teamer Jrue Holiday could put the clamps on Chris Paul. Khris Middleton and P.J. Tucker could rotate to help on Devin Booker. Giannis could muscle up Jae Crowder. So, whether or not Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton could manage to control the paint against Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez seemed like it was going to be a pivotal factor in Phoenix’s success. Well, during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, that was not the case at all.
Instead, the Suns targeted Lopez. They were using ball screens on almost every possession to ensure the matchup they wanted, and more often than not, that matchup was either Devin Booker versus Brook Lopez or Chris Paul versus Brook Lopez. The first three quarters of Game 1 were chock full of these forced mismatches, and funny enough, that’s what the Bucks wanted. When Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals rolled around, the Bucks deployed a heavy dosage of drop coverage — a defense that allows deep looks from over the top of ball screens, but makes it more difficult to get good looks inside. Trae Young is a pretty decent shooter, so that defense allowed Young to go for 48 points on 17-of-34 shooting as the Hawks upset Milwaukee, 116-113.
From Game 2 on, the Bucks started employing a switch on those ball screens. When Clint Capela or John Collins would set a screen for Young, the Bucks would switch off their man, making it tougher for Young to get those quick shots off over the top. It worked. While Young was still able to shoot efficiently throughout the series, the lack of that quick-shot option on offense made it much tougher for the Hawks to score as a whole. Not to mention, Brook Lopez was doing a phenomenal job locking up Young.
Devin Booker and Chris Paul look like entirely different animals though. The quick Booker was driving past Lopez on every possession, so much so in fact that other Bucks were being called to help and Booker could just kick the ball out to an open teammate for a good look from downtown. Despite shooting just 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 Score of this postseason. Chris Paul isn’t as quick as Booker, but he was arguably even more effective against Lopez. Paul was dancing around Lopez all night using step-backs and crossovers to find open lanes. At points it just didn’t seem fair. No matter what Lopez tried to do, the Suns could counter it.
Now, what can the Bucks do to avoid a similar showing Thursday night in Game 2? Do they revert back to drop coverage? No. The Suns were ninth in the league in three-point percentage this season, and were also the most efficient mid-range shooting team in the NBA. So giving the Suns more space than necessary wouldn’t be a great plan.
The best option for the Bucks might be to go small with Giannis at the 5, Tucker at the 4, and either Connaughton or Middleton at the 3. Giannis has the muscle to handle Ayton in the paint. Tucker can handle himself against Crowder in the post as well. While those matchups are slightly less favorable down low, the Bucks would be able to deploy a quicker lineup that could press up on Paul without fear of Paul driving by them, or stay with Booker when he attempts to move into a shooting lane. Lopez could still see action as a rotational piece, but if the Bucks want to win their first NBA title since 1971, Lopez might need to take a back seat for this series. There’s probably a strategy I’m missing, and maybe Mike Budenholzer has an ace up his sleeve that would allow Lopez to stay on the floor while preventing the Suns from matching him up with their guards, but until I see it, the Bucks’ championship hopes seem to dwindle every minute Lopez is out on the floor.