LOS ANGELES -- The moments following a 128-107 loss aren’t the time to celebrate smaller victories, which is why Phoenix Suns center Robin Lopez carefully couched his remarks about his return to action on Monday night.
“Obviously I would’ve preferred to win, but my wind felt OK,” Lopez said after his first game since March 26. “There was no pain or soreness out there when I was playing. I was surprised at how good I felt out there.”
A bulging disk in Lopez’s lower back had kept him in street clothes during the Suns’ playoff run. Lopez played a key role in the Suns’ surge after the All-Star break, but Phoenix got along fine without him in their series wins over Portland and San Antonio -- two teams without a lot of depth up front.
Jarron Collins was the show starter in Lopez’s absence during the early rounds, with Channing Frye logging more minutes, as well. Collins is a serviceable defender and Frye a very capable pick-and-pop man, but the Suns desperately need Lopez's presence in the interior against the Lakers to compete with Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom.
In Phoenix’s Game 1 loss, Lopez got the start and was arguably the Suns’ most efficient big man. His 14 points (6-for-7 from the field) and six rebounds in 24 minutes offered Phoenix a silver lining on an otherwise grim night.
“He’s still trying to get his legs under him, but he was playing at a real, real high level,” Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said.
That wasn’t true of the rest of Phoenix’s frontcourt. Frye had a horrendous game, during which he stroked as many airballs as field goals. Meanwhile, Amare Stoudemire turned in an ineffectual defensive effort and, in 35 minutes, gathered only three rebounds -- two areas where the Lakers mauled the Suns. Lopez, on the other hand, looked sharp. Whereas Collins is an offensive cipher who allows defenses to trap Steve Nash up top, Lopez can punish defenses for overplaying Nash. On Monday night, the second-year center hooked up with Nash a number of times on the pick-and-roll.
“On that roll, guys have to put a body on him because he’s huge and he’s strong,” Stoudemire said. “Otherwise he’s going to dunk on your head.”
Stoudemire’s point is crucial to the Suns’ prospects in this series. The pick-and-roll is the foundation of Phoenix’s offensive game, and Lopez runs it effectively, giving Nash yet another playmate. Against the Lakers, Phoenix needs as many mobile big bodies as it can get on both ends of the floor. Lopez can do a little bit of everything -- hit from midrange, paste defenders on screens, gobble up misses for putbacks and run interference for Nash and Stoudemire. He accomplished all of the above on Monday night and was a key reason the Suns turned in a prolific offensive performance, tallying 107 points on 96 possessions. That kind of effort will produce a victory most nights, though not if the Suns continue to hemorrhage defensively.
Lopez finishes with authority around the rim, but back in the locker room, he’s all whimsy. Asked if he felt tired during any of his four stints on Monday night, Lopez responded, “I didn’t really feel too tired in the first three minutes of the game ...” He then paused, realizing that, out of context, his comments might be misconstrued as a complaint at being subbed out at the 7:22 mark of the first quarter.
“Not that I’m complaining that I got pulled!” he quickly added. "You know?"
Lopez was the only Sun who finished in positive plus-minus territory on Monday night, something that might keep him on the floor for longer stretches in Game 2 ... without complaint.