Robin Lopez: The Suns’ X-factor


PHOENIX — Last night when I wrote my piece on Robin Lopez, I joked about how the Suns thought they’d be in trouble if they relied on Robin Lopez to be their savior.

Well, after taking a look at Wayne Winston’s numbers, that isn’t so far from the truth.

Amare had his 42 points, sure, but Lopez was the MVP of Game 3 by the numbers. He put up an astounding +32 adjusted +/- rating, a shocking figure that factors in Lopez playing many of his minutes against the Lakers’ elite starters.

An even more astonishing number was Lopez’s impact factor. If you haven’t heard of that stat, don’t worry, I hadn’t either before today. Winston said it’s a complicated stat but that basically in a short series being greater than 30 percent is real good and less than 30 percent is real bad.

In Game 3, Lopez’s impact factor exceeded 100 percent, which, according to Winston “basically means he dominated the game; game moved towards Suns virtually only when he was in.”

Winston said he’s “fairly optimistic” that we’re looking at a seven-game series if the Suns play Lopez 30-36 minutes, as it hasn’t just been this game. Lopez was still a +8 adjusted in the Game 1 debacle before falling to -17 in Game 2. For the series Lopez is +12 adjusted with a +31 percent impact factor, right in the range that Winston said is very good in a playoff series, and the Lakers are impressed.

“I think he played good offense,” Ron Artest said. “I don’t even know who’s better him or his brother anymore. I mean his brother’s really good, but he’s hitting jumpers and left-hand layups and jab steps and free throws. I don’t know.”

Added Phil Jackson, “He did some things shooting the ball early in the game that surprised us. His 15-foot shot, his range, he got rebounds and dunks obviously, but his size I think bothered us a lot in the zone aspect.”

Even Alvin Gentry said that Lopez has been even better than the Suns anticipated offensively, which is pretty incredible since Gentry estimated he’s also still only at about 75 percent.

As I wrote last night, we’re talking about a guy who missed about seven weeks with a back injury. The Suns really didn’t know what they could expect from him, and they took every step of his comeback glacially slow to the extent that it looked like he would never return to action even if the Suns got to the Finals at one point.

Even when he appeared poised to return during the week break between the San Antonio series and the Lakers series, the Suns couldn’t have had any idea what they would get out of Lopez. I’m assuming they would have taken a handful of minutes of solid defense, a few rebounds and maybe a couple dunks. They certainly weren’t expecting him to be the X-factor of the Western Conference Finals.

“He looks almost better than he did before he got hurt,” Grant Hill said.

Added Gentry, “He’s really important period for our team because he gives us the size that I think is necessary to try to compete at all with these guys.”

While Andrew Bynum is struggling with his gimpy knee and the Lakers are unsure of what they’ll get out of him, Lopez was a part of three of the four Phoenix lineups in the positives of raw +/- and none of the Suns’ lineups in the negatives. That includes that starting unit that played 26 minutes together and beat the Lakers by 12 in that time.

On the flip side, Channing Frye was involved in all five Game 3 lineups that were together for at least 30 seconds that put up a negative. For the series, Frye’s adjusted plus-minus is -21 and he has a -69 percent impact factor.

Judging by those numbers, Frye should never play and Lopez should get as much time as he can handle, but there’s more to this story. During the regular season the Suns were about about six points better when Frye was on the floor than when he was off (unadjusted), a figure that led the team. He also ranked behind just Nash and Goran Dragic in adjusted +/- for the entire team.

Just because he is mired in a 1-for-20 slump and has missed 16 in a row doesn’t mean I think the Suns should give up on him. He’s been good enough all year to deserve that, but at the same time Lopez needs to play heavy minutes the rest of this series even if Frye does start hitting a few shots.

And if he doesn’t, this sure beats playing Jarron Collins for any stretch against the Lakers.

Finally, I still think playing small ball with Lopez makes sense for a few minutes at a time. The Suns’ played their best basketball in LA with small ball, and Lopez dominated Game 3.

Combining those two strengths with a lineup of Nash-Richardson-Dudley-Hill-Lopez seems to be the perfect lineup against the Lakers. No, you probably don’t want to stay that small or keep Amare out for an extended period, but put it out there for five minutes and I think the Suns can make a run.

The Lakers have struggled with some of that lineup’s quickness, and Lopez keeps things more fair on the interior than Amare does.

But even if the Suns stick with their standard rotations like they did in Game 3, making Lopez a center of their focus could be a major key the rest of the series.

Mike Schmitz contributed reporting.