Paul’s performance in Game 1 was quite a bit better than the rest of the NBA playoffs as he has shot 47 percent from the field over the first 18 playoff games on 14.3 shots a game. The shooting percentage led to him averaging 18.1 points per game during this span.
But what was the difference between Chris Paul in Game 1 versus the rest of the playoffs? Well, the answer is Brook Lopez. When Paul brought the basketball up to the 3-point line, his teammate Deandre Ayton would come up to set a screen, forcing Brook Lopez to follow him as Lopez was Ayton’s primary defender.
Lopez’s decision to follow Ayton allowed Chris Paul to go over the screen and switch defenders from P.J. Tucker/Jrue Holiday to Lopez. After Chris Paul got Lopez to be his defender on the particular possession, he would isolate him.
Let’s take a look at why Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is the ideal choice to slow down Chris Paul in Game 2 of the 2021 NBA Finals.
Unfortunately, Lopez is not comfortable defending beyond 10 feet. Lopez has only defended 5.0 shots per game beyond 10 feet since 2013. Lopez’s discomfort beyond this 10-foot range played right into the hands of Paul as he excels in the mid-range.
Paul has made 49.3 percent of his mid-range shots since 2013 on 4.8 attempts per game. The combination of Lopez’s discomfort with Paul’s mid-range success led to a situation where Lopez would react to every move that Paul would perform. For example, when Paul would dribble the ball between his legs, Lopez would take two steps back out of fear that he would go by him.
Lopez’s reaction gave Paul enough space to take a comfortable jump shot from behind the arc or in the mid-range. Paul shot 71.4 percent from the field during the 6.1 partial possessions where Lopez was his defender on 7 shots.
When Lopez was his defender, Paul’s success led him to score 12 points: 37.5 percent of his scoring output for Game 1. Another side effect of Lopez switching on to Paul was Ayton being guarded by a smaller defender. For example, Tucker guarded Ayton for 8.9 partial possessions during Game 1. Ayton shot 66.6 percent from the field on 3 shots, creating 4 points.
Fortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, there is a simple solution to get Lopez off of Paul: have Giannis Antetokounmpo being the primary defender of Ayton. If Antetokounmpo is the primary defender of Ayton, when Paul goes over the screen, he will most likely be defended by Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo is more comfortable beyond 10 feet than Lopez. He has held opponents to a field goal percentage of 35.8 percent beyond 10 feet on 5.3 shots per game. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s field goal percentage is 5.8 percent better than Lopez, as Lopez has held opponents to 41.6 percent beyond 10 feet.
Furthermore, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s comfortability beyond 10 feet makes it less likely to react to every move that Paul performs. Therefore, it lowers the likelihood that Paul would be able to take a comfortable jump shot on almost every possession.
He only defended for 3.9 partial possessions in Game 1. Paul only attempted one shot which he made for 3 points. Another benefit of having Antetokounmpo’s initial defensive assignment being Ayton is that Lopez would be assigned to defend Jae Crowder.
Lopez defending Crowder seems like a bad idea on the surface, as Crowder converted 38.9 percent of his threes this season on 6.3 attempts per game. When you look beyond the surface, this matchup is more beneficial to the Bucks than fans realize because Jae Crowder has only been an above-average shooter for the past year and a half.
Before joining the Miami Heat, Crowder made 36.1 percent of his catch and shoots on 3.4 attempts per game; catch and shoots accounted for 79.1 percent of his total attempts as he shot 34 percent from behind the arc on 4.3 attempts per game.
Crowder’s history suggests that he’s a better player for Lopez to defend as Milwaukee would rather him take Phoenix’s open shots due to his statistical profile. Furthermore, guarding Crowder gives Lopez the option to help Ayton if he is guarded by a smaller player to prevent him from getting easy baskets.
In conclusion, the Milwaukee Bucks would be better off having Antetokounmpo guard Ayton as he is more comfortable on the perimeter after a switch occurs.