Robin Lopez: Playing with fire


PHOENIX — Robin Lopez was the most popular guy in the gym Thursday at Suns practice — at least with the media — but not for reasons he’d probably like to be.

Everyone wanted to ask Lopez about the Wednesday incident in which he broke a glass door that opens to the practice court in US Airways Center.

The 21-year-old center slammed the glass door open in frustration after giving up a lead in a 3-on-3 game that pitted Lopez, Goran Dragic and Lou Amundson against Jarron Collins, Earl Clark and Alando Tucker.

The door was covered with cardboard today and Lopez took responsibility for the incident.

“Obviously, I feel a little bit of remorse for my actions,” Lopez said. “I want to apologize for my actions, mostly to the janitor. I think that what happened yesterday hasn’t really been an issue on the court. It happened, it’s over with. Everybody has days like that. It’s human. It’s not a big deal in the big scheme of things. I’ve got to be responsible for my actions.”

The shattered door will cost Lopez an unspecified chunk of his paycheck, Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said, but he won’t miss any playing time. The greater concern is Lopez’s ability to manage his emotions on and off the court. Gentry said he doesn’t put much stock in the incident in relation to how Lopez plays.

“I don’t think that one has anything to do with the other,” Gentry said. “The way you approach the game on the court has nothing to do with the emotions you display off the court.”

Gentry went on to say he feels the broken door is an isolated incident and Lopez’s emotions aren’t a problem. Lopez said the same thing after getting some extra work in with Suns assistants Bill Cartwright and John Shumate on Thursday.

“I have been in control of my emotions on the court,” Lopez said. “I think this season, it hasn’t really been an issue. On the court I have a certain drive. It wasn’t anger with anybody but myself.”

That drive Lopez speaks of is something that is certainly working to his benefit, as he is playing a more passionate game. While I can’t argue that he hasn’t been in control of his emotions on the court — he hasn’t had any major on-court incidents this season — it’s reasonable to say that Lopez is playing with fire this season.

Though he is only averaging 4.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game in the seven games he’s played in since returning from a fractured left foot, he is displaying a new-found confidence and passion. That fire has translated into a more physical game, which is what Lopez needs to compete with the league’s dominant big men.

At times, though, Lopez’s physical game gets him in foul trouble quickly. Against Sacramento, Lopez scored a quick six points and pulled in a rebound that showed a glimpse of improved strength, but three fouls in the short second quarter stint put Lopez back on the bench until much later in the game. He eventually totaled just 11 minutes.

The biggest challenge Lopez has faced this season seems to be finding a groove and clicking with the offense. Getting hurt in the preseason made it hard for Lopez to find his place in an offense that had already played 15 games and was off to a 12-3 start.

But now, having spent more time in full practices and getting some game minutes (averaging 10.0 a game, including a high of 16 against the Lakers last week), Lopez is starting to get a feel for things.

“I think I’m just starting to gel with the guys again and get back into the flow of the offense,” Lopez said. “It’s been up and down. It’s kind of been a bumpy road, but I feel I’m getting to a point where it’s more ups than downs.”

The 7-footer started his season with a big up, impressing with eight points and seven rebounds in his season debut against Minnesota. But in his 15 minutes on the court, Lopez also logged four fouls.

Lopez’s follow-up effort didn’t go quite as well, as six minutes on the court led to four turnovers and two fouls. Averaging 2.0 fouls in 10.0 minutes a game isn’t exactly the best way to get more minutes.

Lopez’s lack of playing time can also be attributed to the solid play the Suns have been getting from Channing Frye (despite his recent inconsistency) and to Lopez needing time to get comfortable on the court again as his foot continues to improve.

“I don’t want to say I’m 100 percent — don’t jinx it or anything,” Lopez said. “But I’m feeling really good right now.”

With a grueling December schedule ahead, Lopez is likely to get more time, especially if the starting bigs need more rest when facing some of the league’s best big men in the coming weeks. Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Joel Przybilla, Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bynum and Kevin Garnett all get a piece of the Suns this month.

With such tough opposition, the Suns might need Lopez to get in the game, get physical and provide a post presence at least as much as Frye does, if not more.

Gentry said it’s still too early to evaluate how Lopez’s game has evolved this season. Still, it’s clear that he’s playing a different brand of basketball this year, one with passion, drive, confidence and — fittingly on Planet Orange — fire.