The stars are lining up for the Brooklyn Nets – literally, and figuratively.
After not having their full complement of starting five players since 2013, the Nets finally got one of their cornerstones back, and he looked pretty good after shaking off some early game rust.
Brook Lopez, who had not played a regular season game since Dec. 20, 2013, returned to lead the Nets with a team-high 18 points (6-10 FG), 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 24 minutes to a 116-85 win over the depleted Oklahoma City Thunder. Lopez had his start to this season delayed after he sustained a right foot sprain on Oct. 15 in a preseason contest in China.
“I can’t put into words — it was great to be out there,” said Lopez. “I missed it for a long time and the team really took care of business tonight. Our guys make it easy for me.”
The Nets sorely missed Lopez over last season despite their record being better when he was out of the lineup for 56 games. With Lopez the Nets were 9-17 and their record afterward was 35-21, but the team lacked a low-post presence in the playoffs when the game slows down to halfcourt sets.
Lopez started sluggish against the Thunder – understandable considering his time away from meaningful NBA games – picking up three first-half fouls. He shook that off, however, in the second quarter when landed a massive dunk on Perry Jones with 2:43 left in the second quarter to give the Nets a 54-33 lead.
“It was monstrous,” Kevin Garnett said of the dunk. “It’s just good to see him get that bounce, that explosion. We know he’s having foot problems but he’s playing through a lot and if we’re going to be anything, we’re going to need the big fella.”
Coach Lionel Hollins explained why he left the center in after picking up two quick fouls in the first quarter.
“He was a little sluggish early on and he got into foul trouble but I had made up my mind that I wasn’t just gonna leave him out, I was gonna keep playing him… I wanted to give him a rhythm,” the coach said.
The most important take-away for the Nets was that Lopez looked the like the player of old – pre-injuries. He ran, he jumped (he had two spectacular blocks on Steven Adams and Lance Thomas), and did not appear bothered by the right foot that held him out of the team’s first two games of the season.
“I felt good,” Lopez said. “I thought I was going to be a little bit more gassed than I was. But I guess between the foul trouble and there were a lot of stopped plays and dead balls, I felt good out there.”
The Nets need their cornerstone to make a deep playoff run in 2014-15. Monday night it seemed the stars were finally aligning to make it happen.