Lopez playing catch-up with Atkinson’s plan
All-Star Center Sees Limited Action in Nets’ Season-Opening Loss
The Nets fought and scrapped and stayed in the fight as long as they could during Wednesday night’s season opener in Boston.
And did so without anything resembling a strong contribution from former All-Star center Brook Lopez.
The longest-tenured Net, and by far Brooklyn’s best player from a season ago, continued to struggle in new head coach Kenny Atkinson’s motion offense as our borough’s NBA franchise suffered a 122-117 loss to the Celtics in front of a sellout crowd of 18,624 at TD Garden.
For all his willingness to adapt his 7-foot frame to Atkinson’s version of the run-and-shoot offense during the preseason, Lopez hardly appeared to fit, averaging less than 10 points per contest during the preseason after leading all Eastern Conference centers with 20.6 per game in 2015-16.
But with the exhibition slate behind them, the Nets were doubtlessly hoping to get more out of Lopez in Game 1 vs. Boston.
They actually got less.
The Stanford alum managed seven points on 1-of-7 shooting, grabbed five rebounds and committed two turnovers in just 21 minutes of action after logging nearly 34 minutes a game a season ago.
He also began the second half on the bench, and was noticeably absent from the action when the Nets nearly climbed all the way back from a 23-point deficit, missing their opportunity to draw even when Bojan Bogdanovic and Justin Hamilton clanged back-to-back potential tying 3-pointers in the final minute.
Atkinson was quick to point out that the Nets have a plan in place for Lopez in this rebuilding year, one that includes them limiting his minutes early so that they can get more from him as the season progresses.
“We have a plan in place,” Atkinson insisted following his NBA head coaching debut.
“It’s learning the system. It’s looking at a long-term approach to how we’re going to build him up in terms of minutes as the season goes on. He’s got some miles on him.”
Those miles include playing in all 82 games in each of his first three seasons as a New Jersey Net from 2008-2011, making him the only player in his draft class to do so.
And though he missed significant parts of two of the franchise’s first four seasons here in Brooklyn due to foot and ankle issues, he earned the team’s lone All-Star Game bid in 2013-14, and posted arguably the best season of his career last year.
But that was when coaches like Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo, Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins – remember them? — ran their offenses almost exclusively through Lopez.
That doesn’t appear to be the scheme in Brooklyn this year under Atkinson’s 48-minutes-of-hell approach.
The Nets shot a franchise-record 44 3-pointers in the season opener, leaving Lopez to watch the aerial assault as he tried, sometimes in vain, to keep pace.
“I love being out there and helping the team,” Lopez noted when asked if he was disappointed with his lack of participation in the Nets’ first meaningful game of the campaign.
“I’m on board with [having my minutes limited],” he added. “And I see the benefit of doing it in the long run.’
While Lopez lumbered, the Nets’ other 7-footer, Hamilton, appeared a perfect fit for Atkinson’s scheme Wednesday night, delivering 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with 10 rebounds and two assists in 25 strong minutes off the bench.
“He’s doing what he’s done all preseason,” Atkinson said of Hamilton, who is one of 10 new players on the Brooklyn roster after playing in only 49 NBA games over the previous three seasons.
“I’m really pleased with how [Hamilton] fits us. He’s a system fit offensively with his 3-point shot. He can roll to the rim too and finish.”
Lopez, who will turn 29 in April, is clearly not a “system-fit” at this early point in Atkinson’s tenure.
“What we are trying to do with Brook is take the long-term approach,” Atkinson ceded.
That long-term approach may only last until the February trade deadline as other NBA contenders will doubtlessly come calling for Lopez’s services.
From now until then, both Atkinson and Lopez will have to find out how, when or if the longest-tenured Net will fit into Brooklyn’s latest Blueprint for Greatness.
Nothing But Net: Bogdanovic led the Nets with 21 points on Wednesday and newly added free-agent point guard Jeremy Lin had 18 points, three boards and three assists in his regular-season debut. But Brooklyn is still struggling to keep opposing offenses down, yielding at least 116 points for the fifth time in six games dating to the preseason. “There’s a lot to improve obviously, we need to make progress there,” Atkinson said of the defensive performance, or lack thereof. “Give [the Celtics] credit. They’re versatile. They drive the ball. But they can also shoot the three. It’s a tough team to defend, but also a team that’s been together for a while.” … Brooklyn native and Lincoln High School native Isaiah Whitehead made his NBA debut in Boston, grabbing one rebound, handing out one assist and committing a personal foul in four minutes.
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