Brook Lopez adding a defensive dimension to his play

Nets center Brook Lopez (11) fouls Knicks center Nets center Brook Lopez (11) fouls Knicks center Tyson Chandler in the first half of their game at Madison Square Garden. (Jan. 21, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

advertisement | advertise on newsday

It wasn't even debatable.

When Brook Lopez's name was thrown around as a potential centerpiece to reel Dwight Howard out of Orlando, before the Lakers finally traded for the superstar center over the summer, it seemed like a no-brainer to some. But that argument isn't so clear-cut anymore, not with the scales possibly tipping in favor of the Nets' big man.

As Howard struggles in Los Angeles, dealing with a back that doesn't appear to be 100 percent and trying to mesh with Kobe Bryant, Lopez continues to blossom into more of an all-around center. He's no longer considered a liability defensively, instead providing an intimidating presence inside the paint.

The 7-footer had two monster blocks within a two-minute span in the closing moments to help preserve Monday's 88-85 win over the Knicks, bringing them to within a game of first place in the Atlantic Division. He rejected Amar'e Stoudemire's dunk attempt and then emphatically played beach volleyball with Carmelo Anthony's driving layup with just under two minutes left and the Nets holding a one-point lead.

Lopez, who had four blocks against the Knicks, has posted at least one block in 20 of his last 22 games, a trend he'll look to build on Wednesday night when the Nets (26-15) take on the Timberwolves (17-21) at Target Center in the next leg of their four-game road trip.

"It's something I've been focusing on improving on," Lopez said after the game. "I want to be there to help my guys. I feel like I missed a few assignments, especially on Carmelo when he was in the post in the first half, and I wanted to come out in the second half and be more aggressive."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Lopez is making a strong bid to be selected by the coaches as one of the Eastern Conference's All-Star reserves when they're announced Thursday. Lopez's offensive skills are well known -- he leads the Nets in scoring at 18.5 points per game and he is shooting 51.7 percent -- but the big knock on Lopez since he came into the league in 2008 was his inability to effectively use his size and long wingspan on defense.

He's changing that, though, swatting at least four blocks in a game five times this season.

"We are a tough team when he's blocking shots and being that great low-post presence that we need," Joe Johnson said. "We are a tough team to beat."

Stoudemire found that out the hard way when Lopez rubbed his shot back impressively with his left hand.

"It was great, honestly," Lopez said. "I saw him coming down the lane, and that's not really where you want to be when you see Amar'e coming down the lane like that. It's a bad situation."

Turns out it was rough for Stoudemire instead. It's those kind of plays by Lopez that have helped the Nets move at least nine games over .500 for the first time since 2006. They want to see him keep it up because when he does, "we are hard to beat," Gerald Wallace said. "When our bigs protect the rim and block shots like they did [Monday], it makes it a whole lot easier for us guards."

You also may be interested in: