Commentary

Lopez happy to play on the fringe

The young center has been a Western Conference finals surprise for Phoenix

Updated: May 24, 2010, 11:09 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

PHOENIX -- It's Screech Powers he likes, not Dustin Diamond. Let's be clear about that.

After the game he had in Phoenix's 118-109 win over the Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals Sunday night, Robin Lopez will get plenty of headlines in the morning.

He doesn't need anything linking him with Diamond, a much-maligned actor who has become a punchline. But Lopez embraces the Screech comparisons, the loveable nerd played by Diamond in the hit 1990s TV show "Saved by the Bell." Lopez's Twitter-feed bio even says he's the "Screech Powers of the NBA."

"He's a clever guy," Lopez joked. "Everybody from my era loves Screech."

[+] Enlarge Robin Lopez
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty ImagesRobin Lopez of the Suns dunks over Andrew Bynum of the Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.

As conversations after an intense playoff game go, this has to rank as one of the strangest.

Sure, Lopez politely answered questions from wave after wave of reporters about his big 20-point night for 15 minutes or so, explaining how his back somehow felt good after he missed the past seven weeks with a bulging disk, and defending his near-fight with Lakers guard Derek Fisher as something that just happens in a "contact sport."

But he was clearly more at ease talking about Screech and anything else a little different. Comic books, Disney, dorm life at Stanford, his love of drawing and design, even his "friendship" with golfer Michelle Wie.

"We're friends," Lopez said, not at all uncomfortably. "We've been talking or texting all throughout the playoffs. Except she's an Orlando Magic fan. She likes Dwight Howard."

Then, just as we're really ready to start reminiscing about "Saved by the Bell," another reporter drops in and asks him about scoring 20 points on 8-for-10 shooting to help keep the Suns from falling into a 3-0 hole in this best-of-seven series.

"We have a very deep team, so anyone can step up at any moment," Lopez said. "Offensively, when I had an opportunity, I needed to take it. Whether it was get the ball to somebody else or attack the rim."

His answers are always short and to the point. He says what you expect him to say and little more.

He doesn't seem uncomfortable in the spotlight or in front of the cameras. He just doesn't seem to need the spotlight, as others do.

The margins are just fine with Lopez.

Scoring off putbacks and hustle plays, not scoring if the Suns don't really need him to, playing scrappy defense and taking charges. Any or all of that is fine with him.

Which is kind of what happens to a guy when he's spent most of his life being the complementary half of one of the best twin-brother combinations in basketball.

Brook Lopez, taken tenth overall by the New Jersey Nets in 2008, was always the more skilled of the two.

Brook finished, Robin hustled. Brook scored, Robin scrapped.

It's oversimplified, but that's kind of what happens to twins.

"He's always been the more offensively skilled twin," Robin said of Brook. "I always just wanted to complement him on offense."

So when Robin was taken 15th overall by the Suns in 2008, just five spots after his more skilled and accomplished brother, it raised more than a few eyebrows.

Then when Brook was named to the all-rookie team after averaging 13.0 points and 8.1 rebounds last season while Robin struggled to earn playing time, it really seemed as if the Suns had reached in taking Robin that high.

Yes, the Suns had needed a rangy, athletic big man to protect Amare Stoudemire and cover for Shaquille O'Neal, but was the quirky Robin Lopez that guy?

But a funny thing happened on the way to writing off Lopez too quickly.

He kept getting better. At everything. Offense, defense, passing, rebounding. Every day he'd work with Suns assistant coach Bill Cartwright on his game, and almost every day he'd take a step forward.

When coach Alvin Gentry plugged Lopez into the starting lineup midway through this season, he blossomed. In 31 games as a starter this season, Lopez averaged 11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks. In 20 games coming off the bench, he averaged only 4.0 points and 2.8 rebounds.

It was a nice story until April 26, when Lopez went down with that back injury. The kind of injury you don't want to mess with in a big guy, especially a young and newly promising big guy.

So the Suns had to proceed as if he was done for the year. And even when he was cleared to play for this series -- helped in large part by Phoenix's eight-day break between series -- they expected little from him, despite desperately needing him against the Lakers' tall front line.

"As I said from the start, offensively he's been a huge surprise," Gentry said. "We didn't think that he would be that advanced offensively for us.

"But he's done a good job. He's been great at screen-rolls and being able to catch and finish. He's also been really good at catching and making the little 15-foot shot, which has really been a surprise. "

Hmmm, so in other words, Lopez was an unlikely hero for Phoenix on Sunday night.

Screech Powers would be proud.

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com

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