- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN New York Writer
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NEW YORK -- Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez said he wanted two things for his 27th birthday: a win over the New York Knicks and for former Michigan State Final Four hero Alan Anderson to stop yelling “Sparta!”
He got one of them.
Lopez unlocked a 98-all tie with two seconds remaining and the Nets avoided embarrassment, fending off the Knicks 100-98 to win their season-high fifth straight game on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
After Deron Williams (26 points, 7 assists, 7 rebounds) missed a floater out of a fake dribble-handoff play, Lopez tapped the ball from the left side of the basket to the right side and scored on a putback that proved to be the game-winning bucket.
Lopez, who the Nets have tried to trade numerous times since drafting him in the first round seven years ago, finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.
“I was just trying to keep it alive, and I was able to tip it in,” Lopez said. “It’s always good to beat the Knicks. It’s a good birthday present. I’ll be selfish and give myself a present.”
Anderson, of course, yelled “Sparta!” as he was leaving the locker room after Lopez was finished being interviewed by reporters. It was expected. The Spartans face the Duke Blue Devils on Saturday night in Indianapolis.
Lopez has endured so much this season after coming back from foot and ankle surgery. But through it all -- the slow start, the clashes with new coach Lionel Hollins, the back injury that cost him eight games, having to come off the bench when he returned and nearly being traded -- he has emerged as an All-Star-caliber player again.
And Brooklyn’s hopes of making the playoffs rest on his continued success. Hollins, who might be at least somewhat responsible for Lopez’s recent resurgence along with his improved health, even paid Lopez a compliment recently -- for the first time all season.
That’s called progress.
Since the All-Star break, Lopez is averaging 19.5 points and 9.0 rebounds. He has a $16.7 million player option for next season, and it’s unknown whether or not he’ll decide to opt out. For now, he just needs to continue to play well.
The Nets (34-40) have won nine of their last 11 games -- though only one of those nine wins came against an over .500 opponent (Cleveland). At least they’re pulling out some wins -- albeit while giving their fans a panic attack on occasion. But starting Friday night against Toronto, six of their final eight games are against teams currently with winning records.
It’s time to find out if these Nets can withstand the Boston Celtics and keep the eighth and final playoff spot. If they’re going to, their second unit certainly needs to be better, and Hollins needs to make sure his rotations don’t allow his team to continually lose double-digit leads.
The good news is they’re still in the driver’s seat, with Lopez leading the way.
“Well [this upcoming stretch] is going to be tough, but I think it’s a challenge we’re prepared for,” Joe Johnson said. “The playoffs have kind of started for us already. So we just got to take it one game at a time.
"And prepare for each game like it’s our last.”
Brook Lopez celebrated his 27th birthday in style, sinking Brooklyn's cross-town rivals and strengthening the Nets' playoff hopes.