About two weeks ago, the Knicks got some fresh legs when some previously irrelevant point guard named Jeremy Lin came off the bench against the Nets and then proceeded to rock the NBA world. Today, the Nets hope their fresh legs come from a much more established NBA player — center Brook Lopez, who after missing the team’s first 32 games returns to the starting lineup tonight against Milwaukee.
Brook Lopez has not played professional basketball in a long time. After playing in 246 consecutive games — with 239 consecutive starts — Lopez broke the fifth metatarsal on his right foot shortly before the beginning of the 2011-12 season.
33 games later, Brook is finally ready to return, cleared by team doctors and management. He’ll start against the Milwaukee Bucks, who employ a lot of bigs 6’10” and under (kind of like the Nets). After the jump, a few things you can look for and expect from Lopez tomorrow night.
Duh. The most frequent post-up player for the Nets this season on their entire roster is none other than point guard Deron Williams, who posts up a little over once per game. Second on the team? Shooting guard Anthony Morrow, who posts up a little under once per game and has one move (a turnaround jumper).
They’re efficient in the post due to the reliance on it only in strict matchup situations that call for it, but the Nets have no legitimate big post options; Kris Humphries is mostly a roller/cutter, Shelden Williams takes up space inside but isn’t a finisher, and Johan Petro exhibits the grace of an inebriated giraffe. As a team, the Nets post up on roughly 5% of their plays, half of their output a season ago. That’s almost exclusively because of Lopez, who posted up almost eight times per game last year.
The Bucks are a nice team to face off against in the post, at least temporarily — with Brook kryptonite Andrew Bogut sidelined with an injury, the Bucks don’t have any healthy seven-footers on their roster and rank in the bottom third of the NBA in defending the post. The worst-case scenario is that he Roy Hibbert’s it and just throws hook shots over everyone.
This is another major change Lopez brings to this offense. Kris Humphries is a legitimate finisher, but the lack of significant, consistent finishing prowess from other bigs meant that Humphries had to carry a bigger load than you’d expect scoring inside. With Lopez, defenses can’t just throw everything they’ve got at one big inside, and a pick-and-roll tandem of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez could be devastating. I’m also intrigued in the potential of a MarShon Brooks-Brook Lopez pick-and-roll, since Brooks also handles the ball well.
Don’t be surprised if pick-and-rolls turn into pick-and-pops as the game wears on. Avery Johnson has noted that he wants Lopez to go inside more this year than he ever did last season, but I’d be shocked if Brook didn’t look for his 18-footer at least a few times tonight.
Brook Lopez hasn’t played a full game since April. This means two things: 1) Lopez has a physical advantage competing against players fighting fatigue and nagging injuries in a compressed season, and 2) he’ll have a fair share of professional-level rust to shake off. I’d expect moments where Deron finds him at the rim for easy dunks and layups, and he may even look a little quicker than before by comparison alone. But I also expect him to struggle finding his touch in the post.
Defense at the rim
With Lopez manning the paint for 82 starts last year, Nets opponents shot 61.8% at the rim on 24.8 attempts per game, ranking the Nets sixth-best in the NBA at opponent at-rim shooting percentage. This year without him, the Nets have fallen twenty spots from 6th-best to 26th, allowing 65% shooting on 25.5 attempts per game. His size alone makes an enormous difference when covering individual post players in the paint, and while he’s always been a step slow on help defense, his presence alone at the center spot is an upgrade over Johan Petro and Shelden Williams. Milwaukee’s a good team to test out Brook’s effectiveness, since they’re not blessed with a plethora of offensive options in the post.
A quick hook
Brook’s return isn’t about one game against Milwaukee, it’s about his long-term health. The Nets have announced that they’re resting Lopez for tomorrow’s game against New York, no matter what he looks like today. Brook may think he’s 100% and could’ve gone weeks ago, but the Nets are using this similar to a D-League assignment — just get the minutes in, take tomorrow off, then play one more game before another week of rest at the all-star break. That means any sign of discomfort or worry from the coaches or trainer Tim Walsh and Brook will likely sit for extended minutes.