Lopez Expected to Return for Lakers Series

Gentry said that there's a good possibility that Lopez will start if he comes back.
(Harry How/Getty Images)
By Stefan Swiat, Suns.com
Posted: May 12, 2010

The arrival of an inside presence was one of the more pleasant surprises for the Suns this season. Only the return of that presence could be more welcome.

Since injuring his back against the Knicks on March 26, second-year center Robin Lopez has been attempting to work his way back onto the court. Plagued with a bulging disk, pain could be felt from his back through his legs.

However, with weeks of treatment under his belt from specialist Dr. Christopher Huston, as well as from the Suns’ renowned medical and training staffs, Lopez’s return appears to be imminent. After scrimmaging the few days in practice, Lopez said that he’s feeling no pain.

“My wind is feeling better,” Lopez said. “I just want to feel comfortable out there. (My biggest concern is) re-injuring it.”

Much of the talk around Lopez’s return centers on the problems the Lakers present with their front line. For a large chunk of the game, the Lakers play with frontcourt of 7-0 Andrew Bynum, 7-0 Pau Gasol and 6-10 Lamar Odom.

Known as the longest team in the league, it stands to reason that Lopez’s size would be able to counteract the Lakers' advantage down low. The problem specifically is Gasol, who is averaging 20.2 points and 13.1 rebounds a game in the playoffs.

“It’s one of those situations where we have about four more days and we’ll see where it leads us from there,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “I think he’s gotten better and I’d be shocked if he doesn’t play, but we’ll see over the next four days. He probably would’ve played if we had games now, but fortunately for us, we had a week off between games.”

Gentry and Lopez’s teammates all cosigned on the belief that he looks much-improved at practice. The question is, after a prolonged layoff, how much will the big man be able to contribute?

“It’s obvious being out this long that he’s not going to be able to step back in and play at the level that he was playing,” Gentry noted. “If he feels good enough to give us 15, 17, 20 minutes, whatever, we’ll do that. But we’re not going to put him out there until he’s convinced that he can help us.”

Naysayers abound are stating that the Suns don’t have a chance to match up with the Lakers' big men without the services of Lopez. However, that’s a criticism Gentry recalls hearing before his team faced both Portland and San Antonio.

“We are who we are and we’d love to have Robin playing, but if he’s not playing, we’re not all of a sudden going to concede the series,” Gentry said.

Then there’s the argument that with the Suns clicking on all cylinders, maybe it’s best to not even tamper with the rotation and take away any minutes from Lopez's teammates. However, Gentry doesn’t see any value in not playing him.

“It’s a danger bringing a guy back if he can’t help you, but Robin’s been really key for us,” Gentry said. “He’s one of the guys that anchors our defense and is one of the reasons our defense got better."

That doesn’t mean Gentry isn’t tempering his optimism.

“He’s not going to come back and play the way that he did when he left because his timing isn’t going to be the same,” the Suns Head Coach explained. “But I don’t see one negative in bringing Robin back.”

The time off was quite the boon of good fortune for Lopez, who now has the ability to take a week and prepare himself physically and mentally for the defending champions. His teammates have noticed his improvement.

“He looked good,” Suns forward Louis Amundson said. “He’s almost back to where he was. He’s getting up on the rebounds and he’s running the court well. He just needs to get his wind back.”

Gentry said that if he’s ready to play, “There’s a good possibility that he’ll start.”

Having Lopez would be ideal for the Suns strategically. Not only would they have Lopez on defense, but they'd have fellow center Channing Frye and his three-point shooting to spread the floor on offense.

But Lopez’s teammates want to make sure that their 7-0 teammate doesn’t put himself in a position where he can injure himself permanently or ruin all the rehabilitation that he’s already accomplished.

“We told Robin, ‘Make sure that you’re comfortable and make sure that you’re right,’” Frye said. “Take your time. You don’t have to rush back. We’ll be all right. We’d love to have you out there, but it’s bigger than just this. I know it’s big, but you to us, are bigger than that.”

Lopez averaged 8.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and one block a game this season. After becoming a starter, he averaged 11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks while shooting 59 percent from the field.

Any questions or comments for Stefan Swiat? Click here to send him your comments by e-mail.