Okay, so we’re four games into the season, and I’m not going to make any definitive value judgments at this point because there’s just so much more left to learn: if things are just happening out of randomness, if there’s real fire from this smoke, if fatigue will set in by game 30, or if a certain Nets center’s comic book gets picked up by DC and he leaves the game of basketball forever to pursue his ulterior dreams.
But through four games, there’s one constant for the Nets: Brook Lopez is somehow hitting yet another gear, maintaining his phenomenal offensive production while significantly improving his impact on the defensive end.
Against two young behemoths in former protégé Derrick Favors and double-double machine Enes Kanter, Lopez was simply dominant, making ten of thirteen field goal attempts, all of them in the paint.
Lopez’s strength was on full display Tuesday night, as he drove directly through Kanter, Favors, and rookie Rudy Gobert en route to 27 points and seven fouls drawn.
“He’s never rattled,” Kevin Garnett, Lopez’s frontcourt mate, said after his performance against Utah. “Seems to be always under control, and very, very strong. I’m not gonna say underestimated but he’s very strong; to go through plays and finish them very well. Probably the best I’ve seen in the league in a while.”
Lopez weighed in at a robust 290 pounds in training camp, and though he said he wanted to play at around five to ten pounds lighter, he doesn’t look like he’s lost a shred of muscle.
That’s not to say he was simply overpowering. While the Nets have a mantra of “don’t run plays, make them,” they have a few core sets, just like anyone. That’s another key part of Lopez’s development; not only is he a talented scorer, the Nets are maximizing his talent by putting him in positions to succeed. “My guys just found me in good positions,” Lopez said Tuesday night. “They were always looking and I was trying to catch it and finish strong.”
Here’s one example. The Nets used one simple action to get Lopez two good looks in the first quarter, and it wasn’t just Lopez’s size that made the play possible.
The action starts with Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson bunched at the high post, where they split apart, sending Pierce to receive a pass and Johnson to screen across the paint for Lopez.
Johnson, at 6’7″ and 240 pounds, is big enough to screen most centers, and Derrick Favors knows this, avoiding Johnson’s body by going under his screen. But that decision gives Lopez all the space he needs.
With Favors’s momentum carrying him away from the paint, Lopez had the lane all to himself, and even though Favors makes a good recovery, Lopez has an easy layup.
The Nets went back to the same play a minute later, with Pierce setting a down screen for Johnson again, and Johnson splitting to set the screen for Lopez. On this second play, Favors does what’s probably the better move, locking onto Lopez’s back and trailing him through the screen. Lopez has an opportunity to cut more sharply off the screen and get a look at the basket, but Jazz guard Gordon Hayward is occupying that space and Lopez seems keen to instead get Favors in the post, which ends up being a favorable matchup for the skilled Lopez.
Here’s video of both plays:
This is a great option for the Nets for a few reasons, but mostly because it’ll almost always end up with a good look for Lopez, the team’s most talented scorer.
Lopez’s early dominance hasn’t just come on one end of the floor. Much has been made of Lopez’s average defensive ability, but he’s turned it up a notch in the first few games; opponents have shot just 11-38 against Lopez near the rim, and his length and commitment to the paint have deterred numerous other looks. Just his presence has sent smaller players scattering, looking to attack the rim but pulling up or trailing along the baseline. He’s got as many blocks (12) as all Nets opponents combined this far.
With Lopez on the floor, the Nets have allowed just 96.2 points per 100 possessions in the first four games, roughly the same defensive impact that Kevin Garnett had on the Celtics last season. (For those of you thinking it’s the Garnett effect on Lopez’s numbers, Garnett’s defensive rating in the first four games is 103.3 points per 100 possessions, nearly seven points worse than Lopez.)
Lopez’s stellar per-game numbers have been tempered by the team’s commitment to spreading the playing wealth, averaging just 28 minutes per game in the team’s first four contests. Per 36 minutes in the first four games, Lopez has averaged 26.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks, shooting 58.5% from the field and 80% from the line. His player efficiency rating of 30.9 ranks second in the league’s early rankings, after he ranked fifth in the league in PER last season.
There’s a lot of time left for Lopez to regress, and he almost assuredly will — very few players can keep up a start this impressive, and any sample of just a few games allows for wonkiness in the numbers. But as Paul Pierce famously said before the season about the Nets, the ingredients are all there for a Lopez breakout — he doesn’t have to create so much of his offense on this high-powered roster, and early it’s allowed him to focus more on the defensive end while still putting up points efficiently. He’s learning defense from one of the league’s great defensive gurus in Lawrence Frank and players in Kevin Garnett.
While last year may have been Brook Lopez’s breakout year, it’s possible that at 25 years old, he’s just getting started.