It’s one of the most amazing tricks and it’s been performed by many NBA coaches, dozens of players, scores of media members and millions of fans. They’ve often made disappear a 7-foot, 255-pound man with a wild mane of hair that draws comparisons to a caveman and Sideshow Bob from the Simpsons.
“I’m competitive, so maybe sometimes in the back of my head (I resent being overlooked),” Robin Lopez was saying late Saturday following the Bulls 95-86 victory over the Utah Jazz. “But I get a lot of joy helping my team win and helping my team succeed, so that’s where I’m at; that’s fun for me.”
It was a typical post game Bulls locker room, especially now with Dwyane Wade out for the season since he often spoke first, longest and most eloquently. Reporters milled around the dressing space of Jimmy Butler, who led the team in scoring with 23 points. Butler usually takes a long shower, singing his way through several eclectic offerings. Another klatch of reporters staked out the spot for Bobby Portis, who had a career high 22 points. But he goes to lift weights after games, a habit from often not playing. Most stood around. Denzel Valentine walked in and was quickly surrounded. He’d made three fourth quarter three pointers. Reporters still eyed the door waiting for Butler and Portis as Valentine spoke.
Lopez, in the far corner closest to the exit, dressed quietly, listening to Nikola Mirotic do an interview for international media in one of his many languages. Mr. Cellophane had just battled Rudy Gobert, in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, to just about a draw. Lopez, who often doesn’t play the fourth quarter when the Bulls play more small ball with switching on defense, was rushed back in with 2:51 left with the Jazz within 85-83.
He immediately made a jumper on a nice hook pass from Butler. Opponents usually try to put Lopez in pick and roll late because he doesn’t come out and blitz the ball handler. The Jazz did so with George Hill. Lopez stepped out as Hill missed. Lopez then slid back to seal Gobert off from the offensive rebound. No stat, but key defensive play.
Having just made that jumper, with the Bulls on offense Lopez moved out to the top of the key on the left side, drawing Gobert with him. That left a lane open for Michael Carter-Williams, who drove right for the crucial three-point play with Gobert now too far out to get back. That made it 90-83 Bulls with 2:01 left. Again, no stat for Lopez.
Lopez then had to switch on Joe Johnson, who tried to drive. Lopez forced him past the basket where Johnson’s reverse came up short. Lopez then came out to contest a Joe Ingles three with Bobby Portis in the offensive rebound scramble picked off by Gobert. It missed. Gobert then came out on Lopez setting a high screen on Gordon Hayward for Butler. Hayward was wiped out of the play by Lopez. That also gave Butler the angle with Gobert coming out so high he had to foul a driving Butler, who made two free throws for a 92-83 lead with 1:21 left.
Basically game, though Butler made that terrific steal against Hayward with 53.8 seconds left. For good measure, Lopez on a clever spin got inside Gobert with Portis missing his second free throw after an intentional foul. It was Gobert’s sixth foul. Lopez made two free throws for the final margin.
That was about nine good plays in less than three minutes for Lopez with two points and a rebound.
No one still had come to ask Lopez anything, so he got up to leave. I said, “Bye, Brook.”
He gave me that fighting mascots look, mumbled a playful opprobrium and then smiled.
It is yet another home stretch for the Bulls this season, 12 more games starting Tuesday in Toronto. Then back home for Detroit Wednesday and next Sunday in Milwaukee, those two critical as they’ll be battling with the Bulls for the final Eastern Conference playoff positions. The Bulls are 33-37 and facing this last run without Dwyane Wade, out for the season with an elbow injury.
So in Wade’s first game out in Washington Friday, Lopez had a season high 25 points along with 12 rebounds as the Bulls almost rallied back for the win. No one went to talk to him after that game, either.
“I don’t play an attractive game,” Lopez says with a shrug and smile. “That’s fine with me.”
He’s not a guy you notice. Other than the occasional mascot match, though he’s cut back on that. He was provoked in Washington last week. His “sky” hook sort of comes from waist high and he’s not a bigtime rebounder. Though his offensive rebounding has been vital for the Bulls and he’s become something like the floor spacer Phil Jackson employed with Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley for shots early in games. Except the Bulls often need Lopez later, especially now.
He’s not the big time so called rim protector, but he is 12th in the league in blocks. He seems to lumber, but he gets there faster than you’d think. He seems not to hurry, but is quick, to paraphrase John Wooden.
The Bulls are Lopez’ fifth team in nine seasons. Every team he’s left believes they’d upgraded at his position. But each has either stayed about the same in record or gotten worse.
While he’s basically always there.
Lopez is the only Bull to play every game this season, and by a lot. He’s on pace to have his fourth season of playing all 82 regular season games in the last five. A broken hand in 2014 cost him 23 games with Portland.
Lopez is averaging 10.3 points, now second to Butler with Wade gone and Taj Gibson traded. He is averaging 6.5 rebounds and you feel more confident about his mid range shot than anyone else’s on the team. He’s scored in double figures in 11 of the last 14 and 17 of the last 22 games. And in the two games since Wade went out he is averaging 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds.
“I know there’s a lot on Jimmy’s shoulders,” Lopez says. “The defense really keys in on him. I’m just trying to be a bit of a pressure release in any way I can. A lot of the guys are doing a great job in stepping up in that regard.”
Lopez also is quick to deflect credit. He said he considered Gibson something of an inspiration.
“I appreciated playing with Taj so much,” said Lopez. “He’s very similar in that regard (of being overlooked), someone who is going to go out there and do his job. That’s something I want to emulate, something I want to do out there. He did a great job this year and previous years. If I’m a microcosm of that I’ll be pleased.”
Lopez even credits Butler for his improving perimeter shooting.
“Jimmy’s done a great job of keeping my confidence up in regard to that shot,” said Lopez. “Anytime I catch it, he’s telling me, ‘Shoot that ball, I know you can knock that down.’ Anytime teammates have that kind of confidence in you, it’s easy to perform. It’s also a little bit of the way we play; the shot is a little more available. So I’m trying to focus in practice in becoming consistent with that shot.”
Not that anyone will necessarily notice.