Lopez focusing on defensive role

Newest Blazer makes strides in first three games

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

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While the Portland Trail Blazers gained confidence in the preseason and closed it out with a five-game winning streak, the team’s starting lineup for opening night did not get to play any real basketball together until opening night.

While the team returns four starters, it was the addition of Robin Lopez to the group of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard that is designed to help the team ascend as a true playoff contender.

Lopez was outplayed in the opener at Phoenix by Miles Plumlee. On the second night in Denver, Lopez’s assimilation into the Portland starting lineup was put on hold due to foul trouble.

In his third game and first appearance at the Moda Center in a regular season game, Lopez kept things simple against the Spurs by focusing on the defensive end and the offense came his way, scoring 12 points in his best game so far as a Trail Blazer.

“I think maybe a little bit,” said Lopez when asked if he was worrying too much about scoring. “My focus is a little different with this team. Our starting lineup — from the offensive end at least — is a bit stacked, I think.”

With New Orleans last year, Lopez was on a team that did not have nearly as much offensive talent as this Blazers team possesses and averaged a career-high 11.3 points a game.

Injuries throughout the preseason to Aldridge, Batum and Matthews — all at different times — didn’t allow Portland’s new starting five to play together against anybody other than the team’s second unit.

Additionally, Lopez and Aldridge are both happy with the impact that both big men can have when they are on the court together defensively.

“That’s what I’m excited about, on the defensive end,” Lopez said. “I kind of flash back to a moment in the Denver game where JJ Hickson, a great finisher at the rim, but LaMarcus was on one side and I was on the one side and he had to pick his poison.

“It’s been great. He’s taking on the challenge of guarding the center. Tonight he bothered Tim (Duncan) all night. That’s been better for me. He blocked shots, he clogged the paint, just played big for us.”

Lopez has had two blocks in each of Portland’s first three games.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was happy with Lopez’s play on Saturday against the Spurs after Lopez played his second-highest minute total of his career in a regulation game.

“He plays hard at both ends of the court, goes after every rebound, made a big block down the stretch, his presence in the paint just makes a difference,” Stotts said. “His effort, you feel his effort and energy when he’s on the court.”

Lopez said that in his first home regular season game for the Blazers, he was amazed by the impact the home crowd had on his energy.

“I love that,” he said. “I think there were a lot of times I was feeling a little fatigued and just hearing the crowd picked me right back up. It was kind of unbelievable.”

Lopez played and started in all 82 games last season for New Orleans but he averaged just 26 minutes a game. Thus far he is averaging more than 31 minutes a game, and it will be interesting to see how big of a load he will carry.

Portland has started off the season 2-1 and capped off their first three games with a big win against the defending Western Conference champions.

What will also be interesting to watch is if the Blazers can continue to play defense consistently the way they did against Denver and in the first half against San Antonio where they held them to 39 points.

“The consistency from this game and the Denver game, I think that’s the biggest takeaway,” Lopez said on Saturday night.

Aldridge said: “I thought tonight was great that we showed we have consistency playing defense tonight.”

Lopez and Aldridge are on the same page with the team’s mission and pounding emphasis of being a consistent defensive team.

However, just as Portland has bounced back from their rough opening night, the true test will be whether they can keep the consistency going throughout the season.

Lopez, in particular, will have the spotlight on him as one of the team’s big name additions brought into protect the rim. He knows the season is far too long to be happy with a home win against a great team.

“I think I’ll be satisfied tonight,” he said after the Spurs win, “but I’ll wake up in the morning and get back to business.”