Unwanted in L.A., Brook Lopez Became Milwaukee’s ‘Splash Mountain’

There could be only one response, from the perspective of Milwaukee Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer, to the historically futile shooting night Brook Lopez recently endured.

After Lopez set an unwanted league record for most 3-point attempts in a game without a make, shooting 0 for 12 on threes in a loss to the Phoenix Suns, Budenholzer drew up Milwaukee’s first play of the next game just for his unlikely long-range specialist.

He added a Lopez-specific wrinkle to one of the Bucks’ most trusted sets, calling for what is known as a “sleeper” action to free him at the top of the floor after an entry pass to the Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Budenholzer happily watched the play unfold with Lopez swishing his attempt from beyond the arc — good for the first of 15 3s for the Bucks, out of 40 tries, in a 135-129 victory over the San Antonio Spurs and Budenholzer’s coaching mentor Gregg Popovich.

“I’m not Mr. Tricky or anything,” Budenholzer said this week in an interview. “But it made sense.”

In the modern N.B.A., starting a game with a play expressly designed to reaffirm the team’s confidence in its 7-foot roving marksman indeed makes total sense. Teams are averaging 31.3 3-point attempts per game leaguewide — which will establish a new single-season record if the pace holds — and Lopez has become a symbol of the newfound freedom to fire away that even former back-to-the-basket centers are granted in this pace-and-space era.

Over the first eight seasons of his career, all with the Nets, Lopez attempted just 31 shots from 3-point range — and made three. Starting with the 2016-17 season, Lopez has hoisted 855 3-pointers, which is 175 more than his nearest pursuer among centers: Memphis’ Marc Gasol who has 680.

When the Los Angeles Lakers elected not to re-sign Lopez in free agency last summer as they were building their new team around LeBron James, Milwaukee pounced. Budenholzer wanted as many floor-spacers as the Bucks could find to take defenders away from Antetokounmpo — no matter how tall — after Milwaukee finished last season 25th in the league in 3-point attempts per game (24.7).

This season, Milwaukee is off to a 15-6 start and ranks second, behind Houston, at 40.5 3-point attempts per game. Lopez accounts for 6.8 of them — helping Antetokounmpo average a whopping 18.9 points per game in the paint thanks in part to the extra space in the lane opened up by the absence of Lopez and whoever is guarding him.

“It’s been great here, even including the other night,” Lopez said, referring to his 0-for-12 woes.

“My teammates were so supportive. They were telling me to keep shooting after each and every miss. To have them all have my back, and to have Coach Bud draw up the first play of the next game for me, it feels really good.”

Lopez acknowledged that the Lakers’ decision to look elsewhere when assembling James’s first supporting cast in Hollywood, by contrast, was “tough on me.”

It’s a decision still second-guessed by some in Los Angeles, even though the Lakers have a very effective two-headed center duo in JaVale McGee and the recently acquired Tyson Chandler. The reason: Management chose to sign the former Knick Michael Beasley for essentially the same modest one-year contract (worth $3.5 million) that Lopez took from the Bucks ($3.4 million).

Surely you’ve heard the incessant chatter about the Lakers’ need for more perimeter shooting to open driving lanes for James. Combine that with the fact Beasley has been a non-factor as a Laker, after being pegged as the more capable replacement for the departed Julius Randle, and letting Lopez go is, at best, a curious call.

Missing out on the chance to play with James, though, set up Lopez to start alongside Antetokounmpo, who may well rank as the best player in the post-James Eastern Conference.

Although Lopez averages a mere 3.8 rebounds per game, Budenholzer is adamant that he is as important to the Bucks as a defensive presence as he is with his floor-spacing. The Bucks are the only team ranked in the league’s top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency so far this season.

“He’s really embraced what we’ve asked him to do,” Budenholzer said. “He’s pretty disciplined about getting hits, boxing out, being physical, communication. The pairing with Giannis defensively … Brook is in a good place on both ends of the court.”

Said Lopez: “Growing up, I was a huge Laker fan. It’s home for me. I enjoyed playing in L.A. and being a Laker. But I couldn’t be happier playing in Milwaukee. This has been an amazing situation to come into.”

It doesn’t hurt that Lopez has already picked up a fun nickname as a Buck — “Splash Mountain” — which understandably thrills him as a self-professed “Disney geek.” And teaming up with the uberathletic, unorthodox and still-developing Antetokounmpo, of course, is a thrill ride in itself.

But maybe this all wouldn’t have happened without an assist from Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson — Lopez’s ninth coach in nine full seasons with the Nets.

It was Atkinson, after all, who urged Lopez during the summer of 2016 to come to training camp ready to reinvent himself as a 3-point specialist. With a strong scouting report from Atkinson, who worked on Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta before getting the Nets job, Budenholzer came into this season eager to “see if we could take it even further.”

“I’m a huge Robert Horry fan,” Budenholzer said, referring to the decorated role player he worked with in San Antonio. Horry was part of seven title teams with the Spurs, Lakers and Houston Rockets.

“There’s a reason why Robert won so many championships,” Budenholzer continued. “To have a 6-10, 6-11 guy be able to shoot 3s and space the court, it’s something the Spurs always prioritized and now it’s just kind of evolved.

“If you can have a center or both bigs out there able to create space for other players, it just makes you harder to guard. This is kind of the next step.”

At the quarter mark of the regular season, it’s difficult to quibble with Budenholzer’s geometry. Milwaukee averages a runaway 116.7 points per 100 possessions when Lopez is on the floor beside Antetokounmpo. In Antetokounmpo’s time on the floor without Lopez nearby, that figure drops to 103.9 points per 100 possessions, which would rank in the league’s bottom five.

“I knew this was coming,” said the Boston Celtics’ All-Star big man Al Horford, whose own game was extended beyond the arc when he played under Budenholzer in Atlanta. “I said it during the preseason. Milwaukee played us really tough during the playoffs, and I knew they were going to make a jump adding a coach like Bud.”

Lopez is shooting 36.4 percent from 3-point range and is on pace to attempt 558 3s by season’s end. Not surprisingly, Lopez has emerged as Antetokounmpo’s favorite passing target, attempting a team-high 2.5 3s per games directly off Giannis feeds.

Lopez’s chemistry with the Greek Freak — and how rarely Lopez ventures into the paint offensively — should be noticeable when the former Net returns to the area Saturday night to play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

“It’s fun,” Budenholzer said. “I’ve got to admit.”