Breakdown: Nets-76ers Key Matchup

Brook Lopez, Tony Wroten, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes
Brook Lopez, Tony Wroten, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes
Brook Lopez and Spencer Hawes will both have their hands full tonight. (AP)

Tonight’s game may come down to the two biggest men on the floor — if one of them even plays.

The 8-15 Brooklyn Nets hope that Brook Lopez can make the start tonight, and Lopez told reporters at shootaround that he expects to play. He’s officially listed by the team as “questionable.” If he does, he’ll start faced up against Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes.

Hawes is a player that Lopez has had little trouble disposing of in the past. In their most recent matchup, Lopez casually dropped 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds without breaking a sweat or playing in the entire fourth quarter. But Hawes has rocketed out to a career-best start, averaging 17.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per 36 minutes and shooting a red-hot 44.6 percent from three-point range.

Where Hawes can really damage the Nets is in the pick-and-pop. Hawes has emerged this season as a legitimate threat as a screener & shooter, shooting over 50% on three-pointers after setting a screen for his teammate with the ball.

Hawes is big and lumbering, and his shot form resembles what you’d expect from an unathletic seven-footer. Think Brook Lopez with shorter arms. But his ability to stretch the floor has confounded even the best big men in the league. Most big men are instructed to stay “down” on pick-and-rolls, cutting off the point guard in the lane, but that’s left Hawes open to hit three-pointers against even some of the most athletic defensive centers in the league, like Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard:

The Nets have made a commitment to saying that they bring their bigs “up” on pick-and-roll situations since ousting Lawrence Frank, but Lopez hasn’t played the pick-and-roll any differently since coach Jason Kidd announced Frank’s dismissal. He’s stayed “down” both on pick-and-rolls on the sides (which is the team’s gameplan) and in the middle (which, apparently, isn’t).

It’s been fine for the Nets so far, but the Nets also haven’t played a shooter of Hawes’s caliber opposite Lopez.

Because of that, the Nets may need to guard Hawes with someone else — but other than Kevin Garnett, who’s been shaky this year, he’ll give every Nets big trouble. Reggie Evans and Mirza Teletovic don’t have the length to contest Hawes up top, Blatche has mostly played the pick-and-roll low like Lopez. Mason Plumlee may have a decent shot at defending Hawes, but with him on the floor the Nets would lose the rest of the positives Lopez brings.

One possibility is that the Nets could “cross-switch,” keeping Lopez close to the paint and letting the other big man on the floor guard Hawes on the perimeter.

(Side note: this is a matchup that could really use Andrei Kirilenko.)

Lopez has been one of the league’s best players at protecting the paint. Allowing him to stay inside would help the team lock down against the Sixers, who score the second-most points in the paint per game in the league.

Which brings us to the good news: other than rebounding, Hawes’s shooting is his only edge over Lopez. Lopez is a dominant post scorer and player, with near-unique spatial understanding in the paint. though his size does force opponents into some bad shots, Hawes doesn’t have the defensive chops to cut off Lopez on pick-and-rolls, and Lopez can back him down to get high-percentage looks and draw fouls.

The Nets have a significant edge against the 76ers almost everywhere, and the center matchup is no different. But if they treat Hawes like an old-school center and let him shoot at will, it could spell doom for Brooklyn tonight.