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Art Garcia

The Suns are 16-9 since Jan. 18, when coach Alvin Gentry made Robin Lopez the starting center.
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

Lopez making most of opportunity as Suns' starting center

Posted Mar 14 2010 12:13PM

Ever the realist, Steve Nash went through the reasons for optimism on the eve of a preseason game in Monterrey, Mexico. Above all others, the Suns were a healthier bunch, especially emotionally, mainly due to having coach Alvin Gentry from the start and Shaquille O'Neal in Cleveland.

Nash then volunteered the name of someone who didn't make the trip south and, instead, was holed up in Phoenix with a cast on his foot: Robin Lopez.

"He's big, he plays hard and he hustles," Nash said at the time. "You can't ask for more than that."

Knowing what to expect, let alone ask for, out of Lopez after a spotty rookie year was tricky. The 15th selection in the 2008 Draft and the twin brother to lottery pick Brook Lopez spent last season backing up Shaq under two different coaches. Playing time and production were as unpredictable for Robin as his floppy hair.

The offseason trade for Channing Frye further muddied the waters. Lopez broke a bone in his left foot during the second scrimmage of training camp, knocking him out for six weeks. During that time, the Suns unleashed Frye's inner 3-point shooter and found their starting center.

Frye performed well early in the season, as Phoenix raced out to a surprising 14-3 start. The Suns, though, began to lose steam in December and by mid-January were mired in a season-long four-game skid. A playoff berth that once seemed certain was now hanging in the balance.

Balance might have been the biggest issue with the Suns' struggles. For all of Frye's gifts, he was an offensive center teamed with Amar'e Stoudemire. Having two big men who routinely set up away from the basket isn't ideal when considering those vital facets of the game like, say, offensive rebounds.

After returning from his injury in late November, Lopez steadily began to make his way into the rotation. He was one of two big men off the bench, joining Louis Amundson. Both are defensive-minded, especially by Phoenix standards, and rely on tenacity and grit more than a smooth jump shot.

Having both Lopez and Amundson come off the bench put a strain on the offense, never a good thing with the Suns, so Gentry decided to make a change during the losing streak to better round out the starting five and second team.

Lopez moved into the starting lineup, providing more frontline diversity with Stoudemire. Frye slid into a role as the first big off the bench most nights, giving the second unit a much-needed scoring boost during Leandro Barbosa's absence.

The Suns are 16-9 since the change on Jan. 18, having settled into the Western Conference's top eight. Lopez has averaged 11.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in those 25 games, easily the best numbers of his young career.

"I'm not thinking of making a big impact out there. I'm thinking more of the little things," Lopez said. "We've got Steve, Amar'e, [Jason Richardson] and Grant Hill out there to do the big things. I'm playing with the greatest passer. Amar'e is in the post, sucking the defender away and we have great shooters. It makes it very easy for me out there."

Lopez has scored in double-figures in 17 of his last 27 games after doing so just three times as a rookie. He exploded for a career-high 30, along with 12 rebounds, against the Clippers on Feb. 26. All three of his career double-doubles have come as a starter.

"I always try to go out there and do whatever I can to help my teammates," Lopez said. "The plays are out there and I'm just trying to do what I can within those boundaries, and help on the defensive end."

Frye has also continued to produce since the switch. He's averaging 10.5 points and 3.9 boards as a reserve, giving the Suns in essence a 20-10 center. Lopez and Frye are combining to average 21.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 46.7 minutes over the last 25 games.

It hasn't all gone well for Lopez. In Friday's loss to the Lakers, the 7-footer wasn't his usual presence in the paint. He failed to grab a rebound in 18 minutes and Amundson picked up the slack with Frye serving a one-game suspension. Lopez last went without a rebound on Dec. 15, when he was still playing spot minutes coming off the injury.

Gentry, though, can live with the occasional off night. The Suns coach has praised Lopez's work ethic, ability to finish at rim and improvement over the last two months. His brother isn't surprised.

"He's been playing well for them," said Brook, the starting center in New Jersey. "I think he's about where he was at, at the start of the season. He was in the starting lineup a lot up through training camp and up until the scrimmage where he got hurt, and that set him back a little bit because Channing Frye came out shooting the ball really well and playing well. But he just needs opportunities to play to his strengths, because defense is a lot of what they need."

The Suns are 40-26 going into Sunday night's home game with New Orleans and in the hunt for one of the top four seeds in the West. Robin is appreciative of the chance to be a bigger part of that chase.

"It just shows how much faith my teammates have in me and my coaches have in me," Lopez said, "and that has helped me more so than anything."

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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