EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - For Brook Lopez, getting the opportunity to practice Sunday had to feel like being in a sports car and seeing a mile-long stretch of green lights.
But considering the injury-riddled ride the Nets center has been on for the past year -- essentially stuck at a busy intersection with the parking brake on waiting for the signal to change -- he's not about to floor it.
"Everything has been red for the last like eight months," he said, barely able to contain his excitement after getting through practice without any setbacks. "So we are not just going to go zero to 100."
After being unable to play in a regular-season game since breaking his right foot Dec. 20, missing the Nets' final three preseason games with a sprained right foot and spending the better part of the last three weeks sidelined, Lopez is expected to be in the starting lineup Monday night when the Nets host a Thunder team missing injured stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Lopez, who appeared in only 17 games last season and missed the first two this season, will play after getting through his first contact practice since getting his foot stepped on in a preseason game in China on Oct. 15.
"Very excited, very excited," he said. "I was definitely tired out there. But it felt good to be out there. I'll probably try to sleep until it's time to leave for the game. Not that it's anything out of the normal. But it'll make it come quicker. It's like Christmas."
Just a few days ago, it seemed as if someone had stuffed a lump of coal in the Nets' holiday stocking. Lopez was unable to practice Friday and coach Lionel Hollins said he still was feeling pain in his foot. That triggered a few alarms, given Lopez's injury history.
"I think it was just longer than expected," Lopez said. "It was lingering. It cleared up pretty quickly and I was talking to Timmy [Walsh, the team trainer]. I think that's because I wasn't doing anything, so when I came back, obviously there's a chance I'm going to feel something. I didn't feel something those first days or whatever because I was literally sitting the whole time. I wasn't doing any activity, so that's probably why I didn't feel any soreness."
Lopez’s return will provide the Nets with a much-needed presence inside. Brooklyn has been repeatedly attacked on the interior during its first two games and at times has yielded baskets way too easily.
Offensively, although they’ve utilized a few players on the blocks, it’s not the same as pounding it down low with Lopez.
“Brook’s back and we feel like we can get the ball in the post,” Hollins said. “It’s nice to have that big anchor that you can throw it to and that they have to come play.”
Conditioning initially may be an issue for Lopez, and adapting to the team’s uptempo style on the run won’t be easy. The stiffest challenge could be processing all of Hollins’ schemes and quickly mastering them.
That’s why Lopez knows it’s extremely important for him to maintain strict focus on the court.
“I think I’m just going to have to come out and be mentally prepared,” Lopez said, “make sure I have the sets down, the defensive plays. It’s tough coming in from doing pretty much nothing to playing full NBA games, with the speed of the game and everything’s going on, and what you have to know, how fast you have to go and how quick you have to think. So it’s going to take a lot of preparedness, but I’ll be ready.”
Notes & quotes: Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is expected to attend Monday’s game and Hollins finally will get to chat with him in the flesh: “I’m looking forward to meeting him in person,” Hollins said. “I’ve talked to him a couple of times on the phone. … Everybody that I work with on a daily basis I see on a daily basis, so that is probably more important than just meeting him one time. But it will be nice to see him in person and talk to him.” … The Empire State Building will be lit in black-and-white Monday night to celebrate the Nets home opener.