INDIANAPOLIS — The old year ended with the Nets openly bickering among themselves on court, and while they patched things up with a strong effort against Utah in their first game of the new year Monday, the result was their eighth loss in nine games. Losing takes as much of a mental toll as a physical toll, and that’s why the leadership of veteran center Brook Lopez is more important than ever, especially without injured point guard Jeremy Lin.
Playing the bad-cop role doesn’t come easily to Lopez, who has a playful offcourt demeanor. But when the Nets allowed a nine-point third-quarter lead over the Jazz to slip away, it was evident that Lopez tried to take over in the fourth quarter and put his team on his back. It didn’t work out, in part because it was tough going against 7-1 Utah center Rudy Gobert and also because Lopez’s 14-point effort included 1-for-6 shooting from three-point range.
But the thought process by Lopez was in the right place in the view of coach Kenny Atkinson. Recalling the Nets’ most recent win over the Hornets, Atkinson said, “Him in the post is a good option for us when you look at our team. We like when Brook is aggressive at the end of the game. Him running to the post and us throwing it to him, usually that’s good offense for us in the fourth quarter.”
After the Utah loss, Lopez declined to fault poor shooting or inconsistent offensive execution as contributing factors. He pointed the finger at himself, saying he “hurt the team” by falling short of his usual level of play.
“I’m very disappointed in myself,” Lopez said. “I’m real mad at myself tonight.”
Now, the Nets are set to face Indiana Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It’s the first of three games in a four-day span, including home games Friday against NBA champion Cleveland and Sunday against Charlotte. That means there is a possibility the Nets’ performance team will require Lopez to sit out one game as they did earlier this season, though nothing is set and it’s determined on a game-to-game basis.
But as long as he’s on the floor, Lopez is the Nets’ unquestioned leader. In December, he averaged 20.7 points, 5.3 rebounds 3.8 assists (his best career month ever) and 2.1 blocks.
Although Atkinson wants the ball to move in his motion offense, he still wants it to go through Lopez, as it did late against Utah. “We keep telling Brook we love variety,” Atkinson said. “We like him in the post, we like him popping on the pick-and-roll, we like him spaced in the pick-and-roll and we like him at the elbow [corners of the free-throw line]. We will continue to encourage that.”