For Lopez, Career Year Moves Into First Postseason

Josh Newman , Field Reporter

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Brook Lopez was around in 2010 when the then-New Jersey Nets stumbled their way to a 12-70 record in front of an apathetic fan base in their final season at IZOD Center in East Rutherford.

Brook Lopez on Hawks Josh Smith

A lot has changed since then. The team moved to Brooklyn this season, Lopez is a legitimate franchise center with a contract to match and ownership spent well over nine figures putting pieces around him.

What all of it adds up to is Lopez getting set to make his playoff debut Saturday evening when the Nets host the Chicago Bulls on Saturday evening at Barclays Center.

“I’ve been very anxious for a first taste of playoff experience,” Lopez said after practice at PNY Center on Thursday afternoon. “I wish it were right now.”

“He’s had an All-Star year, I think the best year since he’s been in the league,” Nets interim head coach P.J. Carlesimo continued. “He’s shooting the ball well from the perimeter, he’s finishing inside, he’s getting to the free throw line, he’s night and day better defensively in terms of the way he’s contesting and protecting the rim.

Carlesimo’s statement that this has been the fifth-year pro’s best season isn’t far from the truth and the amazing part is how he has handled injuries, not to mention rampant trade speculation to get to this point.

After right foot and ankle injuries cost Lopez all but five games of the lockout-shortened, 66-game regular season a year ago, he then had to deal never-ending trade rumors that had him as a centerpiece of a deal that would bring Dwight Howard to Brooklyn.

Trade talks eventually came to an impasse and Lopez re-upped with the Nets for four years and $61.8 million once it became clear that a trade Howard wasn’t going to happen.

He opened the season well, averaging 18.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and shooting 53.4 percent from the floor in the month of November. On Nov. 28, he suffered a sprained right foot, his third injury to that foot inside a year. The Nets went 2-5 in his absence, further proving his worth.

“Everything has kind of been going been up for him,” frontcourt mate Reggie Evans said. “The only time he had a moment where he kind of slowed down was when he got hurt. He came back, worked his way back up, started coming to the gym real, real early.”

His first All-Star Game appearance, 19.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game later, Lopez will play in the postseason and the matchup will not be an easy one.

Defensive Player of the Year candidate Joakim Noah (11.9 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 2.1 BPG) missed 15 games with a right foot injury, but returned in limited action on Monday and Wednesday. Assuming he is healthy enough to open the series on Saturday, he presents a big, physical matchup, specifically on the defensive end.

Big, physical centers and forwards are not something Lopez has fared overly well against during his short career, but the notion is that as he has improved this season, the physicality of the position is something he is adjusted to nicely. He will need to show that against a Bulls frontcourt that also features perennial double-double threat Carlos Boozer.

“He’s been fine, he’s played against him enough times, I don’t think that’s a factor,” Carlesimo said. “Joakim is what he is. He’s one of the better defensive and rebounding centers in the league, but Brook’s what he is. He’s one of the better defensive and offensive players in the league, too, so I think it’s gonna be a good matchup. I’m not concerned about Brook.”

Lopez played well against the Bulls in the regular season, averaging 22 points and shooting just under 57 percent from the field in four games.

“His focus is there, he’s there early on game day. his focus in practice is there. his determination is there, so he’s my least concern in being ready,” Evans added. “I’ve been kind of prepping him like hey man, the atmosphere is going to be different. But he ain’t showing me no signs like he’s not ready. He’s ready to step up to the plate.”

Josh Newman is SNYNets.com’s Field Reporter. Follow him on Twitter for up to the minute news and banter on all things related to the Brooklyn Nets and the NBA