Brook Lopez began elevating his game right around the time Dwight Howard’s name was mentioned as the Nets’ target to team with Deron Williams.
Knowing Lopez it probably has more to do with Williams’ arrival than it does the expected Howard pursuit. Lopez said he doesn’t pay attention to any of that and he never followed the Carmelo Anthony sweepstakes.
Some players just say that, but you tend to believe Lopez because he’s not your average athlete. He’s not consumed by basketball and all the drama. He has other interests and says he doesn’t like to clutter his brain with things he can’t control.
Either way, a better Lopez helps the Nets on the court and in the trade market.
On the court, Lopez of late has played the way most expected him to play this season, and the Nets have won three straight for the first time since his rookie season.
Many writers and critics – present company included – have been on Lopez for not being the player and leader the Nets have needed him to be, for playing too soft at times and not mixing it up around the basket.
Ironically, he started moving further away from the hoop after a 3-for-17 performance against Howard in early November. Lopez became more of a jump-shooter after that.
Recently, and some of it definitely has to do with Williams, Lopez is in the paint, scoring in the paint and making his presence felt inside. It’s time to give Lopez his due because he’s playing inspired basketball and just looks like a different player, more confident and sure of himself.
“He senses the moment more of when he needs to try to dominate and not just be a participant,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “He talks to his teammates about getting him the ball. He’ll even whisper to me one or two of his go-to plays that he likes or he gives me some kind of signal. I just think it’s maturity.
“I think he’s taken a step forward. We just need him to continue to improve. For him it’s just his focus. He doesn’t nearly get rattled with officials in the fourth quarter anymore. He doesn’t beg for calls. I think that has a lot to do with the growth of a personality and maturity.”
Since Williams joined the Nets, Lopez is averaging 24.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in six games. The last five, Lopez has scored 26.8 on 56.7 percent shooting and 8.6 boards. After registering three double-doubles in the Nets’ first 58 games, Lopez has had three in his last five. He had 34, 14 and eight blocks in last week’s triple-OT win over the Raptors in London, but what he did in Wednesday’s victory over the Warriors might have been more impressive.
The Nets were playing solid defense all around, but couldn’t score. They went more than four minutes without a basket. They needed someone to carry them, especially with Williams away from the team for the birth of his son, Desmond.
Lopez came through Wednesday the way many in the Nets believed, or at least hoped, he would when the season started. He scored the Nets’ last nine points, including the last seven of the game to lift them to the victory.
“I was just trying to be more aggressive and get a few more rebounds,” Lopez said with a smile.
He knows everyone has been on him about his lack of double-doubles this season. But also, this is who Lopez is. It’s very difficult to get him to talk about himself when it comes to basketball.
Lopez will talk about his interests, but questions to Lopez about Lopez when he plays well usually turns into what the team was doing well. It’s not necessarily a bad thing because it shows Lopez is a team-oriented guy, and no one questions that. He’s never been called selfish.
The Nets have wanted him to be more assertive, demand the ball more, and Lopez is finally doing that. It doesn’t mean the Nets won’t see whether Howard is available if they can get him. But they like what they’re seeing from Lopez lately and hope it continues.
Follow me on Twitter: @Al_Iannazzone
Al Iannazzone covers the Nets for The Record (Bergen County, N.J.)