Lopez's play gives Nets a fighting chance

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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Atlanta Hawks, despite leading this first-round series 2-1, are shooting just 39 percent over the first three games -- and Brooklyn Nets rim protector Brook Lopez is a big reason why.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Hawks have gone 5-for-21 in the series on shots contested by Lopez at the rim. In Game 3, they went 0-for-8 in such situations.

“It’s just something I've been focused on all year,” Lopez said Sunday after practice. “Just being there for my guys at the rim. When they get beat, just being there to contest shots and make each shot a difficult look. It’s been a theme of the series. The coaches have been saying, ‘Contest their jumpers. Contest every shot they take. Make everything difficult.’”

During the regular season, Lopez ranked 13th in opponent field goal percentage at the rim (49.7) among players who faced at least seven attempts per game and played at least 70 games overall, according to NBA.com.

Nets coach Lionel Hollins has been asking Lopez to use his size all season long, so Hollins certainly pleased with what the 7-foot center has brought to the table recently. Heading into Game 4 Monday night at the Barclays Center, Lopez is averaging 19.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in the first-round series while shooting 52.5 percent from the field.

“He’s been doing it down the stretch and in this series,” Hollins said. “He’s in there and he’s a load to deal with, but it also creates opportunities for other people when [the Hawks] do take him away. We’ve just been working on seeing where the opportunities are and trying to play to whatever they’re giving us. I think from a defensive perspective, we've been pretty decent, and we've gotta continue that because they’re a good offensive team. We've gotta continue to execute and not turn the ball over.”

Lopez has picked it up on the offensive end. After taking just seven shots in Game 1, Lopez averaged 16.5 shots in Games 2 and 3. His point totals have gone from 17 to 20 to 22. In Game 3, he got to the free throw line 12 times.

“I think it’s just because of our ball movement,” Lopez said. “Really, we've been doing a lot of the same stuff, but we've also changed things up as well a lot, and just going over the film helps in seeing what they're been doing.”

Lopez’s improvement in all facets of the game is a result of his improved health and rediscovered confidence. After all he's had to endure this season -- in terms of adversity after coming back from a season-ending injury in 2013-14 -- Lopez will have the opportunity to test the open market over the summer, assuming he doesn't opt into the final year of his contract, which is worth $16.7 million.

“I just feel like I've been more in shape, in rhythm playing full basketball minutes the whole time I’m out there,” Lopez said. “I don’t know if I could pinpoint [a date when I started feeling more comfortable], but it’s just about getting touches.”