It started in September.
A few Trail Blazers were playing in an open gym session when the newly-signed Robin Lopez joined them on the court. Normally, such sessions are less of a practice and more a glorified summer scrimmage. Not for Lopez.
“He was playing serious basketball,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I think everyone realized then that we had a special guy that was going to play that way in September and play that way in May.”
In his first season with the Portland Trail Blazers, Robin Lopez has been the defensive anchor the team so sorely needed the past few seasons. The intensity and defensive pride Lopez displayed in September quickly permeated the entire roster, instilling within them a newfound commitment to defense.
Lopez is quick to deflect personal accolades, however.
“I don’t really think it’s been myself individually,” Lopez said. “It’s been a team effort. Early on in training camp we had a lot of guys step up and be leaders on both ends.”
That defensive intensity has maintained throughout the season, helping Portland raise their defensive efficiency from 26th last season to 18th this season, according to Basketball-Reference. Though those numbers are still middling when compared to other championship contenders, it’s nonetheless a crucial and promising development. Lopez’ individual numbers, meanwhile, paint a portrait of the defensive stalwart the Blazers thought they were getting this summer. According to the NBA’s player tracking data, opponents are only shooting 42.5% at the rim against Lopez.
“He’s given us everything we hoped for on the defensive end,” Stotts said, “Both as a stabilizing force in the paint, setting the defensive mindset, and as a communicator.”
Communication is the bed rock of any good defense. Without it, it’s nearly impossible for teams to solve problems in real-time, leading to constant breakdowns and easy baskets for the opponent. On offense, Damian Lillard may call the plays, but on defense, the burden of communication almost always falls on Lopez’ afro’d dome. He holds down the interior with his size, intelligence and shot-blocking ability, but he helps Portland’s perimeter defenders the most by constantly talking.
“You look at Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace, even Tim Duncan, who is a quiet guy but vocal defender — for big guys to be vocal is even more important because they see everything in front of them,” Stotts said. “Perimeter defenders don’t see what’s behind them. (The bigs) have to communicate (to the perimeter) when a screen is coming, or when they have to cut or if there’s somebody behind them.”
“When you have guys who are willing to talk on defense, that’s really half the battle right there,” Lopez said.
The Trail Blazers already have a trove of thrilling players. Damian Lillard’s butter-smooth game dazzles, Nicolas Batum’s now a long-limbed threat on both ends of the floor, even youngsters Thomas Robinson and CJ McCollum have both shown flashes of the spectacular. Lopez’ game may not be as aesthetically pleasing, his play provides just as much energy as his more offensive-minded teammates.
“It’s the little stuff that gets a team going,” Wesley Matthews said. “RoLo blocking a shot when someone gets beat on a backdoor, taking a hard foul, getting a tough defensive rebound is what fuels us. It may not show up in the stat sheet, but it’s big time for us.”
Energy aside, Lopez also wants his presence to give his teammates a sense of assurance.
“I hope the perimeter defenders feel like they can make a mistake or two and (know) I’ll be able to clean it up,” Lopez said.
Lopez laid the groundwork for that comfort in September, and it now blankets the entire team.
“You never want to get beat,” Matthews said. “But I know I can be more aggressive, and use more of my instincts because I know RoLo’s back there patrolling the paint.”
Statistical support provided by NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com