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How the Bucks delivered an inspired defensive effort against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets

When asked if he liked guarding Nikola Jokić after the Milwaukee Bucks’ 112-95 win over the Denver Nuggets on Monday night, all Brook Lopez could do was laugh.

“He makes it difficult,” the Bucks big man said after three seconds of exasperated laughter. “He is capable of doing everything offensively. He can score whenever he wants, but he’s so great just because he makes everyone else on the field better. And he can pass the ball to them whenever and however he wants.

Watching just one play of a defensive possession against Jokić reveals why the idea of ​​fun can seem far-fetched. Watch everything Lopez did in just eight seconds against the two-time NBA MVP.

First, Lopez sprinted to get into position. Then, once he got to the 3-point line, he faced Jokić. Then he jumped to his left, extended his left hand and waved it above his head, while simultaneously kicking his right foot to the other side of his body, taking away passes to the cutters.

When Lopez landed, he continued to struggle around various body parts to deny Jokić the opportunity to pass to a cutting teammate. As Nuggets backup point guard Reggie Jackson cut past Jokić and passed Lopez, the Bucks big man kicked the right side of his body to take away a bounce pass, then sprinted toward the goal line. 3 points with his hands high. as Jokić started to lift the ball above his head as if he was going to shoot the ball.

When Lopez closed it out and put that shot away, Jokić sent the ball to Aaron Gordon after the play.

In five seconds, Lopez took five different actions away from Jokić. And that was just the beginning of ownership.

Every second Jokić has the ball in his hands could be the exact moment 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 pressure of Jokić’s defense is enormous, but Lopez finally admitted that he enjoyed twice every regular season, even if it took five minutes of prodding to get him to admit it.

“It absolutely is. Yes, it’s fun,” Lopez said of the challenge of defending Jokić. “I mean, that’s why we play, that’s what I play for. So an evening like tonight, absolutely fun.

On Monday night, Jokić had 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 these 29 points, Jokić made 25 shots. And while getting eight assists, Jokić also committed five turnovers. Lopez had everything to do with these struggles.

“He’s a very smart defender, he uses his length,” Bucks coach Doc Rivers said of Lopez. “He knows what he can’t do. I think we understand what he can’t do and we try not to put him in those positions. Play this little drop, but not completely.

“(Jokić) is a tougher player, maybe the toughest player in the league, and yet Brook stopped the ball and recovered a ton of it. So that’s a very good thing.

By slowing down Jokić, the Bucks slowed down the Nuggets and held their opponent under 100 points for a second straight game. Yet it wasn’t just about Lopez on Monday. The Nuggets finished the night shorthanded with Jamal Murray and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out in the second half, but the Bucks dominated defensively in the first half due to 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 relentlessly off screens. At the edge, Lopez waited in cover as the riders attempted to reach the edge. And everywhere else, Giannis Antetokounmpo was wandering around, waiting for an opportunity to prowl at unsuspecting opponents.

On Monday, the Bucks used the same formula.

It started with Rivers getting a much better effort from his guards against Nuggets guard Jamal Murray. In Rivers’ first game as coach with Milwaukee in Denver two weeks ago, he thought his players were running into too many screens. So, in what has become a regular occurrence over the past few weeks, Rivers compiled a series of clips and showed his guards those moments ahead of the team’s second effort against Murray on Monday.

“He killed us that night,” Rivers said of Murray. “And we showed pick after pick after pick that we just faded, faded, faded, faded on. And Malik and those guys, they’ve heard it enough. I mean, they got tired of it, obviously, but we showed them the game before, the other night (against the Hornets). We weren’t chosen at all. And then we follow him (on film) just running into picks (in the first game against Denver).

“And Murray is going to make tough shots anyway, but if you come across a pick, he’ll make them. I think we did a great job of overcoming the choices and fighting for them.

The message seemed to get through to the Bucks guards. Watch this second quarter effort from AJ Green:

With Green fighting over screens and continuing to fight even when hit by a screen, the Bucks put Murray in a tough position, then Antetokounmpo took advantage with a steal.

And that’s 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 to be on somebody on the other team that he can just run through,” Rivers said. “I guess in football, as a free guard, he would be an amazing free guard. I mean, he does a great job moving and he got a steal from the back and he’s still at the rim.

“What that gives us is we always have rim protection, whether it’s Brook or Giannis. And now that our guards are on the ball and we’re taking guys out of the 3, taking them out of the 3 with rim protection creates contested shots between the two. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Antetokounmpo wreaked havoc in this role all night, and his ability to move allows him to come away with this steal in the second quarter:

“For many years before Doc, that was my job,” Antetokounmpo said. “And I think I kind of got that and it also keeps you out of trouble, so it allowed me to be in the passing lanes and disrupt their offense as much as possible.”

Although Antetokounmpo reminded the media that he enjoys the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s best player and wants to continue to have that opportunity, he understands why using him as a roamer is a logical option.

“I just like to disrupt people’s offense and be in the passing lane, get my hands on the ball and try to go get rebounds and start the offense,” Antetokounmpo said. “Because when I’m in the paint, I can also rebound the ball and start the offense.”

On Monday, Antetokounmpo grabbed 18 rebounds, which tied his season high. Under Griffin, the Bucks grabbed 73.2 percent of available defensive rebounds, which was good for 12th in the NBA. Since Griffin’s dismissal, they have grabbed 75.9 percent of available defensive rebounds, which is good for 7th place. Those defensive boards turned into offense as Antetokounmpo regularly began to break down rebounds, allowing him to score 36 points on efficient 14-of-19 shooting from the field.

And with Lopez playing his part on Jokić, the Bucks looked like the Bucks of old, countering an offense led by a two-time MVP with a strong defensive effort thanks to a three-pronged attack. The Bucks will be the first to admit that they are far from perfect and still have a lot of work to do on defense, but the progress they have made in just two weeks has been impressive. That defensive improvement has been the main reason much of the team has expressed optimism despite a 1-5 start to Rivers’ tenure in Milwaukee.

With two straight wins fueled by dominant defensive performances, the results are perhaps starting to show what the team has believed internally over the past two weeks.

(Photo by Nikola Jokić and Brook Lopez: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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