10:55 am Feb. 7, 2013
Credit P.J. Carlesimo and the Brooklyn Nets for not being blinded by stardom.
Wednesday night against the Detroit Pistons, in the final minute of what had been a lackluster effort from both teams, the Nets didn't defer to Deron Williams, their max-contract point guard, or Joe Johnson, their max-contract shooting guard.
Instead, they went to Brook Lopez, who has unexpectedly become the most effective offensive weapon on the team, and who converted his chance to pull the Nets to victory.
With 59 seconds to go, and Detroit within one point at 88-87, the Nets called a play for Lopez. He backed Jonas Jerebko down, a forward 50 pounds lighter than Lopez, and drew the foul. Making one of two free throws, he gave the Nets an 89-87 cushion.
For all of his strides offensively, Lopez still isn't a gifted defender, and the Pistons went to their center, Greg Monroe, at the other end of the floor, with Monroe backing Lopez down and drawing a foul. Monroe, like Lopez, made one of two, and Lopez grabbed the rebound.
Lopez's rebounding had been on par with his defense for most of his career, but he's bumped up his rebounding percentage to 14.6 percent, highest since his rookie year, and solidly in the middle of the pack among N.B.A. centers.
The Nets promptly went back to Lopez, who was guarded this time by Monroe. This time, Lopez got the ball in isolation about 12 feet from the basket, drove to the hoop, and converted a layup past Monroe, who was powerless to stop him. That basket was ultimately the clincher in a 93-90 win.
Since winning seven in a row last month, the Nets are 6-5. They've stayed afloat despite Johnson shooting 37 percent over those 11 games, and Williams slumping over his past four games, shooting under 39 percent and turning the ball over five times per contest.
Over those same 11 games, Lopez is shooting 56 percent, staying out of foul trouble, and even blocking 2.4 shots per game.
Accordingly, Lopez had taken almost as many shots as Johnson, 160 to Johnson's 161, and more than Williams' 140. Prior to these 11 games, Johnson had taken 575 shots, Williams 504 shots, and Lopez just 447.
"I was just in the mindset that I wanted to go up strong and, more importantly, make the right play," Lopez said of his winning shot after the game. "If there was another guy coming to double, get it to the open guy. But they stayed in single-coverage, so I wanted to be aggressive and be strong."
With a brutal stretch of games coming up—the Wizards, followed by seven straight teams with winning records—the Nets need better play from both Johnson and Williams to keep up their pursuit of an Atlantic Division title.
But even if the highly touted backcourt keeps struggling, it appears the Nets have another player to build around. The frequency with which the Nets have been calling his number, especially late in games, suggests that they know it, too.