MILWAUKEE — The silver lining to the back injury that sidelined Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez for most of the season is that it made him fresher for the playoffs.
The 7-footer is healthy now and eager to help the Bucks defend their title. He’s already shown he can cause problems on both ends of the floor for the Chicago Bulls, the Bucks’ first-round opponent.
Lopez scored 18 points and played a season-high 32 minutes in Sunday’s 93-86 Game 1 victory. That performance came less than two weeks after Lopez had a season-high 28 points in a 127-106 triumph at Chicago.
“We feel like we have an advantage in our size and we could take advantage of that in the paint,” Lopez said after Sunday’s game.
Lopez also was a big part of a defense that held Chicago to the lowest point total of any Bucks opponent all season. The Bulls shot a season-low 32.3%.
Lopez played in the season opener but missed the Bucks’ next 67 games with a back injury that required surgery on Dec. 2. He didn’t return until mid-March.
“He’s done great since he’s been back,” Bucks forward Khris Middleton said. “I think everybody saw how big of a piece he was when he wasn’t (there) in the middle of the season or beginning of the season also, how much we depend on him not only on the defensive side but on the offensive side, getting us easy baskets and him being able to spread the floor.”
He should also have the energy for what the Bucks hope will be a long playoff run.
“He looks good,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think he feels good. There’s a freshness I think physically and also a little bit mentally, too. I think he’s so excited and, I think, appreciative to be back again.”
Milwaukee’s height advantage causes major issues for the Bulls, who have 6-foot-11 center Nikola Vucevic but nobody else taller than 6-8 playing meaningful minutes. The series continues Wednesday in Milwaukee.
The Bucks have Lopez plus 6-11 Giannis Antetokounmpo with 6-10 forward Bobby Portis coming off the bench. Serge Ibaka, a 6-10 center acquired at the trade deadline, is out of the Bucks’ rotation for now.
“Like last year, we’re going to take it one game at a time, get better each and every game,” Lopez said. “We have film now to look at these Bulls in the playoffs. They have a lot of great players. We’re going to be watching a lot of film, doing more scouting and just keep looking to improve from Game 1 to Game 2.”
Antetokounmpo had 27 points and 16 rebounds in Game 1. Portis, who started for much of the season while Lopez was injured, had 10 points and 12 rebounds in 23 minutes.
Lopez wasn’t consistent. He had 11 points in the first eight minutes and didn’t score again until the last five minutes of the game.
But he delivered some of the game’s biggest plays down the stretch.
His three-point play extended the Bucks’ lead to 83-78 with 4:34 left. He delivered a putback of his own miss to make it 87-82 with 2:32 remaining. And with the Bucks clinging to an 87-86 lead, Lopez made a floater that started a game-closing 6-0 run.
Lopez built on the momentum he established over the last couple of weeks. Lopez averaged 19 points over his last four regular-season games.
“Mentally, he’s in a great place,” Budenholzer said. “And certainly he’s having a big impact on the game.”