After exorcising eight years of postseason demons with a second-round sweep of the San Antonio Spurs, the Phoenix Suns faced a full week off before meeting the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday. The respite is important for a variety of reasons — y'know, stuff like giving Steve Nash's(notes) elbow-exploded eye a chance to heal and allowing the Suns' crack medical staff to replace the spent power crystals that fuel Grant Hill(notes) with fresh plutonium-infused models.
Another reason the layoff benefits the Suns, according to multiple reports: It will probably allow Robin Lopez(notes) to get off the injured list and back on the floor for the first time since a bulging disk in his lower back sidelined him on March 28. In fact, Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry told Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic he'd be "shocked" if Lopez didn't play in Game 1:
"If he's ready to play, there's probably a good possibility that he will start," Gentry said.
Maybe the return of Lopez isn't as critical to the Suns' chances of beating the defending NBA champs as Nash's vision or Hill's resurgence — Gentry told reporters at the Suns' practice facility on Tuesday that the second-year center "is not the cavalry," and Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) said he thinks that "even if we don't [get Robin back], we'll be in good shape."
Then again, maybe it is.
STAT said getting Lopez back "would be phenomenal" — given the likelihood that he'd assume most or all of the 11.4 postseason minutes per game previously used by Jarron Collins(notes) (he of the tasty 1.4 Player Efficiency Rating and as many personal fouls as total rebounds and made field goals combined), "phenomenal" seems like an understatement. And while he refused to label Lopez his squad's saving grace, Gentry did say that even if the Stanford product isn't able to pick up where he left off before his injury, just having Lopez's 7-foot, 255-pound frame available against a big, talented Los Angeles front that figures to pound the ball down low would be a big help.
Shoot, even the Zen Master seems to think so.
"I think [Lopez's] presence will help them out," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson told NBA FanHouse's Sam Amick. "They need a big body. That's where we've had some success with them these last couple years, but we'll have to see how Robin comes through this."
Now, nobody's mistaking Lopez for Dikembe Mutombo(notes) — for one thing, they look and sound totally different; for another, Mutombo was so much better defensively — but even at less than 100 percent, he could give the Suns an interior presence they've lacked in his absence. He's solidly built, can move his feet well enough to make life difficult for more talented offensive players and can lend a hand on the boards, especially on the offensive glass (he grabbed 12.6 percent of available offensive rebounds when he was on the floor, which would have been good for fifth in the NBA this season had he played enough minutes to qualify).
In fact, quiet as its kept, he was playing pretty darn well before he went down, averaging 11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocked shots in 31 games after Gentry tapped him as a starter for a January 18 contest against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Suns were 22-9 with Lopez in the starting lineup, and as Seth Pollack noted a couple months back at Bright Side of the Sun, the production gap between Lopez and Lakers center Andrew Bynum(notes) isn't nearly as vast as you might imagine — granted, that comparison was based on a small sample size and on a healthy Lopez, but Bynum's sporting some wear and (meniscal) tear himself these days. If Lopez can go, he could help.
Robin Lopez could be a contributing factor to an NBA team competing in and potentially winning the Western Conference Finals. Does that sentence sound absolutely bananas to anybody else?
Seriously: Think about the way we viewed Robin Lopez when he came into the league. I don't pretend to be any sort of authority on the college game, but when he was coming out of Stanford, wasn't the popular view that he was a nice, tall pile of leftover genetic material, the Grade-B stuff that didn't get used in the making of more gifted twin Brook Lopez(notes)? Sure, DraftExpress considered him a "pretty legit prospect" in his own right, but considering how much this looks like the way he'd really dribble the ball if he was actually given the chance, didn't a lot of us think of Robin as a 7-foot, floppy-haired version of Danny DeVito in "Twins"?
On top of that, not unlike his brother, he came off as something of a clown, didn't he? The kind of guy who'd have multiple pictures of himself in sandals wielding branches as though they were ninja weapons? Or might sign up for a Twitter account and choose the name, oh, I don't know, @eegabeeva88?
And now he's being discussed as a potential X-factor on a team four wins away from playing for the NBA championship — a contributor that has led at least some slice of basketball fandom to say, "Oh, man, if we can just get Robin Lopez back in the lineup ..." It seems stunning. And hilarious. And kind of sweet, in a way.
Good for you, Robin Lopez. You still strike me as a monster goofball who knows way too much about Walt Disney and his fantastical fiefdoms, but you've totally exceeded expectations, you're busting your hump to give your team whatever you can in the push for a title, and you seem to give great hugs. Just one more reason that, unless your heart pumps purple and gold, it's pretty hard to root against the Suns.