It all stems from Brook Lopez, and unless you’ve been living in a basement apartment in Downtown Brooklyn without a TV because your rent takes up 80% of your paycheck, you know this already. Lopez has exploded in the past two months, averaging 19.5 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game since the All-Star break, on a tick under 53% shooting. He’s rebounding on the offensive glass at a ridiculous rate, grabbing 4.2 offensive rebounds per game and 14.7 per 100 possessions since the break, and turning them into second-chance points.
Lopez has never been an agile big man, but he’s moved more fluidly since the All-Star break. It seems partially due to his conversation with Hollins, but he’s noted that he has “complete confidence” in the foot, which has undergone three surgeries since 2011.
Both he and Lionel Hollins cite a conversation on February 6th as the turning point. “For me, I understood that he wasn’t going to be a dominant post-up player, and that we had to play differently with him to be effective,” Hollins said. “I just told him, ‘I’m not going to try to make you somebody you’re not, just be who you are.'”
The proof’s on the court. Lopez’s ball screens per game and team points per possession on plays when he sets one have both shot up since February 6th, from 18.8 per game and 0.98 PPP before to 23.2 per game and 1.06 PPP since, according to data provided to The Brooklyn Game from STATS LLC.[note]Those official stats are through Thursday, though not much has changed in the two games since.[/note] His biggest threat in the pick-and-roll has been his quick release and soft touch on short floaters: if any of his driving teammates finds him in his sweet spot about eight feet in front of the rim, there’s really nothing an adjusting defense can do.
Both of those plays above are as simple as they get: big man trails the point guard, sets up a high pick-and-roll in the middle of the floor, big man sets solid screen, point guard draws attention, finds big man for the short push shot. Williams and Lopez have clicked into something in the past two months, and they know it.
“I don’t know if we’ve found something, but it’s just getting used to having D-Will and myself on the same page again,” Lopez said after the Nets beat the Lakers Sunday afternoon. “It’s something we’ve had before.”
He’s also getting more shots directly at the rim, up to 6.5 per game since February 6th, as opposed to 4.9 before.[note]His minutes have also gone up, but he’s still getting more shots at the rim in general: 7.5 per 36 as opposed to 6.4.[/note] He gets most of these bunnies either by consuming offensive rebounds at this weird historic rate he’s on, or screening and rolling for layups and dunks. You can see the latter clearly on this play: Lopez is just begging to run a pick-and-roll with Williams, going to him three times (the first as the video starts), eventually getting things to click and rolling for an and-one layup.
Lopez’s strength is in his length: there just aren’t many big men that can match Lopez’s 7’2″ frame[note]He’s listed at seven feet, which would be true of him if he had five more feet.[/note] and 7’6″ wingspan. When he’s inside against the 6’9″ Tarik Black, there’s really not much Black can do except headbutt him in the stomach, which I’m pretty sure is illegal.
He’s still getting his post-ups, he’s just getting fewer of them, and have turned his post-ups from the focal point of the offense to quick plays where Lopez just turns and fires with deep paint position. Earlier in the season the Nets would force the ball to Lopez and just watch him work; now there’s more movement in the offense, which includes Lopez.
The questions are always there. This is a league that loses iconic big men to ugly foot injuries all too often, and one wrong turn or fall could end Lopez’s career. But if the fear is always there, it’s because there’s something to lose, and right now Lopez is playing the best basketball of his career.