Gentry: 'I'll be shocked if (Lopez) doesn't play'

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PHOENIX — For the past month and a half, the Suns have stuck with a wait-and-see approach with Robin Lopez.

Even at the beginning of his back injury there was no proclamation that he’d be shut down for 4-6 weeks, he just wasn’t going to accompany the team on its late-season Eastern road trip, which made me think originally he’d return for that April 7 showdown against San Antonio.

Then he was ruled out for the rest of the regular season, then he was ruled out for the first round and then he was ruled out for the beginning of the San Antonio series, although by this point it was kind of a day-by-day thing.

As time went on, Lopez continued to get positive reviews from his weekly checkups with a back specialist, and as the playoffs wore on he started working out with the team and then even practicing. He had no more hurdles to clear, yet the Suns still weren’t confident about sending him out there against Tim Duncan.

Finally, this week the Suns have changed their tune. Lopez is expected to be in the lineup for Monday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers.

“I think he’s gotten better,” said head coach Alvin Gentry. “He continues to improve. It’s one of those situations where we basically have four more days. We’ll see where it leads us from there. I think he’s gotten better, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t play, but we’ll see what happens the next four days.”

How effective Lopez will be and how many minutes he will play is a completely different story. The seven-foot center has been shut down because of a bulging disk in his back that led to some nerve issues in his right leg.

The Suns have been cautious with him for a reason. We’re talking about their 22-year-old center of the future, and a back injury could be a career-altering ailment. Lopez said last week that once he returns he will not be at risk of re-injuring the back, which is why the Suns have made sure he’s right before throwing him back into the fire.

Because he is theoretically fully rehabilitated, it’s possibly he won’t just be a shell of himself like Brandon Roy was when coming back early. However, no matter how much the Suns try to simulate it this week, Game 1 (if he does indeed play in it) will be Lopez’s first action since March. There will be some rust, particularly since he’s going up against guys like Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum.

Still, at one point I did not think the Suns could beat the Spurs without Lopez (how wrong that was), but I really don’t think the Suns can beat the Lakers without a positive contribution from Robin. The Lakers are just too big, and even 15 (if not 20) minutes of Robin banging on them and taking up space inside would be huge for Phoenix.

Of course, he could suffer a setback and not come back at all, but as things stand now it looks like Lopez will play a role in the Western Conference Finals.

“He probably would have played if we had games to play now,” Gentry said. “Fortunately for us we have a week between the games, and I think he’ll be ready to play. That’s just my guess.”

Nash banged up, but good to go

Although he still looked like a boxer who went the distance at practice Wednesday, Steve Nash said there’s “nothing” his eye injury has prevented him from doing, “everything is fine” and that “oh yeah” he’d be playing if the Western Conference Finals started tonight.

Said head coach Alvin Gentry, “I told somebody you’ve got to listen to Barry Melrose. He’s Canadian, it doesn’t matter. Facial lacerations don’t count in Canada. He says if you don’t play in a sporting event because of a facial laceration then you lose your citizenship in Canada. Steve is fine. He’s banged up, he’s got a black eye, but it’s not anything unusual coming out of a series with San Antonio. He’ll be ready to go, and he’ll be ready to play.”

I think that means don’t expect Nash on the Game 1 injury report.

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