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Lopez twins at center of NBA revolution
In a world where big men must shoot or sink, Brook and Robin Lopez have seen their basketball paths diverge
Given their genealogy and shared background at Stanford, what’s going on with Brook and Robin Lopez would seem to ripe for one of those scientific research studies on twins in some lab in Palo Alto, Calif.
Short of that, it speaks to the divergent circumstances of their respective NBA teams, while offering up the veteran 7-foot centers as poster guys for the current challenges faced by the league’s big men.
On one side, you’ve got Brook Lopez and the opportunities he and the Milwaukee Bucks have seized through the season’s first four weeks. The Bucks have been bombing through their early schedule with one of the most unabashed 3-point-centric attacks, using their Lopez as a so-called stretch five. Head-scratchingly so, in fact, if you were to base his role on the first eight years he played in this league.
On the other side, you’ve got Robin Lopez, and the predicament he’s in with the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are down near the bottom of the Eastern Conference again, this time not by design (they played for lottery balls in 2017-18) but by the distress of multiple injuries. And yet their Lopez, though healthy, has been relegated to deep reserve and rah-rah status from the side as coach Fred Hoiberg and the team’s front office focus on the team’s younger players.
Same age (30), same size, same position, same DNA. But with just enough variance in their skill sets and surroundings to yield almost diametrically opposed results.
The brothers both will be in the house at Milwaukee’s new Fiserv Forum Friday night (9:30 ET, ESPN) for their 19th head-to-head meeting since they got to the NBA, five picks apart, in the 2008 Draft. But their current fortunes hardly could be more different.
Right now, nurture is kicking nature’s butt.
Call him ‘Splash Mountain’
The nickname crystallized on Twitter, courtesy of one @2LTDiesel, even as Milwaukee was still busy beating the Nuggets 121-114 Sunday in Denver. That’s the game in which Brook Lopez essentially auditioned for a role in the Golden State Warriors’ backcourt by hitting eight of his 13 3-point attempts, including 6-of-7 in the third quarter.
Once on a roll, he seemed oblivious to the exact location of the 3-point line, needing to know only that he was behind it before he launched. At a time in league history when lumbering 7-footers represent little else besides obsolescence, Brook Lopez was going all Steph Curry or Klay Thompson on the Nuggets and on us.
So there it was: One of the league’s biggest players making like one of the Splash Brothers? “Splash Mountain” was born.
Surely his brother and best friend Robin must have spoken to Brook and gotten some feel for his sibling’s excitement. After all, they talk by phone daily.
“No,” Robin said 24 hours later, flatly, about asking Brook about the game he had. “Not one time. It seems like they’re doing pretty well. Looks like he’s having fun out there.”
Fact is, while the brothers talk every day, they rarely discuss their jobs. They are a creative and curious pair, fans of comic books and cartoons (Robin had on a Chip ‘N’ Dale T-shirt before the Bulls game Monday, two characters from the Lopez’s beloved Disney staple). They’re intrigued by art, history, tech and hundreds of other topics, but claim to seldom, if ever, talk basketball.
About the closest they come in regards to each other are some teasing jabs. Their publicly snarky relationship drew attention when Robin played for the Knicks in 2015-16, with Brook across the river in Brooklyn. Now they’re geographically close again, 90 miles by way of I-94, Brook on a one-year deal with the Bucks while Robin is in the final year of his contract with Chicago.
Sure enough, Robin had a dig for this occasion.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said of the Bucks’ fit for his brother, “they’ve figured out, what’s best for him is, figuring out one thing he’s really good at, limiting him, not giving him too much responsibility out there.”
Uh, not exactly. Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer has welcomed Lopez’s size in recent clashes with the likes of Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic. Neither of the Lopez brothers dazzles as a rebounder, but their fundamentals in attending to the boards historically boosts their teams’ results in that category.
Still, it is Lopez’s ability to shoot from deep that has the Bucks revving so high. And this stretch five is a guy who made only three of 31 3-pointers (9.7 percent) in his first eight years combined.
Old dog meets new trick
So what gives? He made it sound like a skill lost but resurrected.
“A lot of players growing up can shoot the ball,” Brook Lopez said. “When you’re just playing, scrimmaging or playing high school ball, you shoot it a little bit. But when I came into the league, I was really just a back-to-the-basket guy. There weren’t many teams looking for a stretch-five then.
“So it wasn’t something I even thought about doing. I focused on getting my points in the paint. I still shot mid-range twos, but we never thought about pushing it past the three.”
That changed in the fall of 2016. Kenny Atkinson took over as head coach, bringing principles shared by his boss in Atlanta – the same Budenholzer for whom he nowplays. Encouraged to dust off that skill, Lopez launched 387 3-pointers for the Nets in 2016-17 and hit 134 (34.6 percent).
That continued last season with the Lakers, where Lopez nearly matched his Brooklyn numbers. Now, green-lit with the Bucks and so far successful 41.8 percent of the time (41 of 98), he is on pace to shatter all 3-point marks for 7-footers. This is not unlike Clippers big man DeAndre Jordan unexpectedly cranking up his free-throw proficiency this season.
Identifying it as a trend finally got Robin to chime in.
“We’ve all evolved as players throughout our tenure in the league,” the Bulls big man said. “There have been times we recognize, ‘I need to get better at this particular aspect of the game.’ When someone like DeAndre or Brooks … recognizes, ‘I want to work on this,’ they know what it takes to get better at it.”
For the league’s tallest, broadest players, with offenses focused on the fast and the far, there truly is a sense of adapt or perish. Brook is out in front of that — sometimes 26 feet out.
“I was playing inside and out in Brooklyn when I started shooting threes,” he said. “Then going to L.A., it was a big adjustment for me. My [playing] time went down, my usage went down. A lot of times I found myself just spacing the floor.
“It was a whole new world for me. It was, ‘OK, I’ve got to find my shots from here now.’ I wasn’t finding my normal bunnies in the post or anything like that. ‘I’m just sitting and spacing – that’s my job.’ It was a big adjustment, getting the rhythm right and everything.
“I’m pretty comfortable into that now and I’ve kind of found my niche, as far as my rhythm.”
The ‘perish’ side of the coin
Robin Lopez was penciled in as the Bulls’ starting center this season. He was, after all, a highly paid ($14.3 million) veteran who had started all 450 games he had played since 2012-13.
Chicago’s other bigs were short on experience, raw in their skills or both: Bobby Portis, Cristiano Felicio, 2018 all-rookie Lauri Markkanen and newcomer Wendell Carter, Jr., the prized lottery pick for whom the Bulls steered themselves downward in the standings.
Then everything got fast-tracked. Injuries to Markkanen and Portis, along with guards Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine, have shifted Chicago’s agenda. Carter’s precociousness at both ends and off the court showed he could handle more minutes than anticipated.
And Lopez’s handling of the home stretch last spring, when he was a healthy scratch from 18 of the Bulls’ final 26 games, had him facing the situation again.
As helpful as Lopez was two years ago when the Bulls still were striving for the playoffs, as well as he played (10.4 ppg and 6.4 rpg), the bushy haired-and-scraggly bearded center fits neither the team’s current timeline nor Hoiberg’s preferred style of play. This Lopez is, er, a traditional NBA big – 4-of-21 from the 3-point line over 11 seasons.
“He’s very talented and I think he can shoot the ball too,” said brother Brook, who always has been the more offensive-adept twin (17.8 ppg vs. Robin’s 8.9 in their careers). “I’ve seen it first-hand, growing up, playing with him my whole life. I know the value he adds to a team.
“Obviously, the situation in Chicago, he’s being professional. They’re trying to play their young guys, and that’s the way they want to go regardless of what happens on the court.”
Robin Lopez doesn’t like it, mind you. He talked with the coaching staff about the diminished role and expectations. It generally is assumed Chicago would trade him if they could find a taker for his salary.
But unlike last spring, when he sat on the side in street clothes, he is in uniform and available. Mostly he’s called when one of the young guys picks up early fouls or if a particular substitution or matchup arises.
“I’m a competitive person,” Robin Lopez said. “So at first it was a change for me. But now, it’s always just a pleasure to be in the arena. To be with the guys. To have some role on the team. Whatever I’m doing, whether I’m stepping on the floor or not.”
Said Carter, the quick-study rookie: “It’s a great honor that he’s allowing that to happen without too much pushback. He’s being realistic. He knows what’s going on. He’s a great helper – he’s not selfish at all. Behind close doors, he tells me where to be on defense, where to be on offense, how to be a great teammate. He wants to help me take over his role in a very good way.”
Or, as Lopez said recently about potentially getting cranky and refusing to help: “I’d be a huge jackass.”
Being as this is a Lopez, though, sibling deprecation is even better than self-deprecation. Asked if he was happy for his brother’s re-invention in Milwaukee, for the step he has taken in his game and how Brook is getting some credit for the Bucks’ strong start, Robin shrugged.
Brook responded in kind, verifying that – as much as their work situations change – the brothers’ dynamic remains intact.
Asked if he expected to bang against Robin Friday for the 19th time as NBA opponents (each man’s team has won nine times), or perhaps wave to him from the court while Robin sits all night in warm-ups, Brook seized yet another opportunity.
“I’m going to do my job regardless,” Brook Lopez said. “Honestly, I guess selfishly – but mean to Robin – I’d rather he be out there so I could destroy him.”
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