A year ago, Robin Lopez was simply known as the mascot-massacring twin brother of the Brooklyn Nets’ soon-to-be all-time leading scorer. He was an underrated—at best—center that played solid minutes on a lowly New York Knicks team that seldom garnered any praise from the national media. As brother Brook continued to inch towards a personal legacy just across town, it appeared as though the other Lopez would never escape the shadow his twin brother cast on him once the two of them finished their playing days at Stanford University.
But now, Brook finds himself out of the playoffs as the lone star on the worst team in the NBA, and Robin finally has the upper-hand. Sideshow Rob’s enigmatic-as-ever Chicago Bulls team currently finds themselves up two games on the Eastern Conference’s #1 overall seed with the series headed back to Chicago, and Robin Lopez himself has established a presence as the team’s X-Factor in their matchup with Boston. I noted during BlogaBull’s roundtable preview leading into the series that I thought Lopez would serve such a role, and so far he’s excelled in every single area of play against a Celtics team that is just hopelessly undersized when trying to compete with him.
Most notably, RoLo’s biggest and most eye-popping contribution to these Bulls victories has been his relentless crashing of the offensive glass. In the first game, Lopez pulled down seven offensive boards in the first half and turned that into six personal second-chance points for a Bulls offense that hit one three pointer in that same span. Last night, Lopez had an encore performance with five offensive rebounds for the entire game, many of which he also turned into second-chance points or a full extra possession for Chicago:
That example above sums up the problem Boston is having with Lopez perfectly. RoLo stands a full 7’0” and is masterful at establishing presence when trying to corral missed shots, and the Celtics simply don’t have anyone big enough to box him out. They tried doubling him out of the lane on that miss from Mirotic by throwing 6’9” Amir Johnson and a girthy Marcus Smart at him, and it still didn’t matter. There is simply no member of the Celtics roster that can prevent a locked-in Lopez from doing what he does best, and it’s powered the Bulls’ offense through some critical stretches in the first two games.
But Lopez’s offensive contributions don’t merely begin and end with his effort towards snagging missed shots. Lopez has quietly been an excellent pick & roll option in numerous games this season not only because of his solid screen-setting, but also his ability to knock down jumpers from the elbow and above the freethrow line:
Lopez shot 45.9% during the regular season on shots between 10-16 feet, which was far above league average and by far the best for his entire career. This isn’t a hurricane Joakim-style tornado jumper with a will-it-or-won’t-it touch on the rim, either; when he’s in a groove, Lopez can just flat-out shoot the ball.
The Celtics are daring him to let it go to prevent Chicago’s ball-handlers from creating plays, and Lopez is making the Celtics pay dearly for doing so. RoLo is 14-20 from the field so far in this series, and his shot is going straight in the basket from everywhere:
But Lopez’s most surprising contribution to the Bulls’ success in the first two games of the playoffs has come on defense. Lopez is a solid-enough rim protector down low, but many Bulls fans will testify that he frequently played poorly against stretch bigs that required attention on the perimeter throughout the season. Because of this, it was fair to speculate that a big man with the ball-skills, playmaking, and shooting range of Al Horford would give Lopez fits from the moment these playoffs tipped.
Horford did have 19 points in Game 1 and has 13 assists through both games of this series, but Lopez rallied in Game 2 to keep Horford from taking over the contest and getting Boston’s offense back into rhythm. He demonstrated tremendous mobility on this recovery into a fast-break-inducing block on Horford:
Lopez made a perfect defensive reversal after getting caught facing the wrong direction when meeting Horford on the perimeter, and positioned himself perfectly to cut off any hope Horford had of a clean finish. Such ability to stay with his man on a drive from the exterior to the basket was not something that Lopez showed he had earlier in the season, and his ability to recover makes it that much easier for the Bulls to mitigate the small ball spacing of the Celtics’ offense. Lopez also did a good job with his help defense on screens to limit the impact of the ball handler while also denying easy looks to the roll man:
Merely 96 minutes into the playoffs, Robin Lopez is dominant. In an era where the importance of the five spot is perhaps as least-emphasized as it has ever been alongside the pursuit of spacing and frontcourt versatility, the value that Lopez provides cannot be overlooked. While Al Horford is currently the front-runner for “most overpaid player in the NBA,” set to make north of $30 million on the final year of his new contract with the Celtics, Robin Lopez is half the price for two more guaranteed seasons. His rebounding has proven to be game-changing, his offensive contributions have been brilliant, and his defensive flexibility has been shockingly impressive.
RoLo should be a force in this series from here on out, regardless of what Brad Stevens throws at him in subsequent games.