Brook Lopez’s return boosts Bucks ahead of postseason

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo says the absence of Brook Lopez for much of the season has caused the Milwaukee Bucks to appreciate the 7-foot veteran on a whole new level.

“We took him for granted for a lot of years,” the two-time MVP said. “I’m not taking him for granted no more.”

Lopez is back with the Bucks after missing 67 games due to a back injury that required surgery. He made his first start since the season opener Tuesday in a 126-98 home victory over the Chicago Bulls after coming off the bench for three road games last week.

The return of Lopez, coupled with the acquisition of 6-foot-10 veteran center Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline, gives the defending champions the frontcourt depth they lacked for much of the season.

“I’m feeling great right now,” Lopez said.

The Bucks have gradually worked Lopez back into the lineup. He played 15 minutes his first two games back, 20 on Saturday and 24 on Tuesday.

But he already has shown just what the Bucks were missing while he was out. The defending champions’ defense hadn’t been the same without him.

In his first start since coming back from surgery, the Bucks held the Bulls to 42.4% shooting. Lopez also made two 3-pointers in a span of less than two minutes.

“Brook is a cheat code,” Antetokounmpo said. “He can rebound the ball. He can score the ball for us. He can make 3’s. His defense is unbelievable. He’s just making it tough for anybody who comes in the paint. I’m so happy that he’s back.”

Lopez, who turns 34 on April 1, says his back hasn’t given him any cause for concern since he started playing again. Lopez underwent back surgery on Dec. 2.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” Lopez said. “There haven’t been any flare-ups or issues or really anything at all.”

The return of Lopez gives Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer the opportunity to test out different frontcourt combinations.

The most notable change has Bobby Portis returning to the bench role in which he thrived during the Bucks’ title run last season. Portis had started while Lopez was out and is averaging 15 points and 9.1 rebounds, career highs in both categories.

“Obviously, Brook’s the starting center for the Bucks,” Portis said. “I came back to this team knowing he was the starting center. Me going back to my old role is just normal. I signed back to this team knowing, potentially, I wasn’t going to be a starter anyway.”

The Bucks now have plenty of options with Lopez and Antetokounmpo starting while Portis and Ibaka come off the bench. During the Bulls game, the Bucks experimented by having Antetokounmpo, Portis and Ibaka all on the floor together.

“We’re really versatile,” guard Jrue Holiday said. “We can go big against teams that maybe have a little bit more length. We also can go small against teams that are smaller but maybe more athletic. I think being able to have the option is great. Man, having Brook back is awesome.”

Although Lopez isn’t a high-volume rebounder at this stage of his career – he hasn’t averaged more than 5 per game since 2016-17 – the Bucks say he still provides a major impact on the boards. In Lopez’s return to the starting lineup, the Bucks outrebounded the Bulls 53-33.

“Brook has many, many positive impacts, but his ability to just take up space and create better rebounding angles really more so for his teammates than anybody, it’s just something that we’ve seen on the regular,” Budenholzer said. “When Brook plays, our defensive rebounding percentage is significantly better, sometimes elite.”

Lopez will try to get up to speed after the long layoff during the Bucks’ final 10 regular-season games as they prepare for the playoffs and compete for seeding. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, two games behind the Miami Heat and a half-game ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics.

The silver lining behind Lopez’s long absence is that, assuming his back doesn’t cause any more problems, he should be fresher than usual for the postseason.

“Myself personally, I’m going to peak at the right time,” Lopez said. “And that’s what the team’s doing as well, really.”

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