There were two things happening on one of the must-see highlights of this NBA season. On one side, Kristaps Porzingis sprinted in from the three-point line, raised his skyscraper arms and flew between two Raptors defenders for a jaw-dropping putback slam.
On the other side, Robin Lopez cut in front of Jonas Valanciunas and wedged him underneath the basket.
One of these things caused overjoyed Knicks fans to text everyone they knew. The other will be forgotten in the annals of history. I had to watch the replay several times to even see it. But if Lopez doesn't pin Valanciunas back, this amazing moment may never happen.
Consider the alternate scenario. If Lopez gives up on the play or fails to push Valanciunas underneath, the Raptors' center can reposition himself, balance his legs and grab that board before Porzingis can. Even if Porzingis is quicker to the ball, Valanciunas at least makes it a more difficult fight. Instead, Lopez bodied Valanciunas, and five other players (including Lopez) jumped higher than the man who started with inside position.
This is Robin Lopez's NBA skill, and it's an important one. When a shot goes up, Lopez eats every damn inch of space possible, spreading his wide body on and between whoever stands in his way. On some occasions, the ball bounces right to him and he sticks it back in or snares the defensive board. More often, it doesn't, which is fine. Lopez is pinning the opponents' best rebounders on the floor, which allows someone else to swoop in and take credit for Lopez's work.
Lopez's lead-blocker skills improve every team he joins. In Phoenix, they enabled the smaller Suns to compete on the defensive glass. In Portland, they masked LaMarcus Aldridge's disdain for physical play inside. In New York, they're making life easier on the slight Porzingis and helping the Knicks control tempo and hold opponents to one shot.
The numbers are staggering. When Lopez plays, the Knicks snare 27.4 percent of their offensive boards and 76.6 percent on the defensive glass. They'd be the third-best offensive rebounding team and safely in the middle of the pack on defense with those numbers. When Lopez sits, those figures drop to 20.6 percent on offense and 73.9 percent on defense. Those would both be bottom-five marks.
The effect on Porzingis himself is even more pronounced. When Porzingis and Lopez share the court, the Knicks grab more than eight percent more offensive rebounds and nearly five percent more defensive rebounds than when Porzingis plays center, per NBAWowy. That may ultimately be Porzingis' long-term position, but he's not ready to play it full-time yet. Lopez's presence means he doesn't have to.
Lopez does more than rebound. He's a fine rim protector aided by the Knicks' conservative scheme, which lets him stay around the basket. Opponents shoot just 45.8 percent at the basket when he's defending, a solid number. He's a decent shot blocker, but he understands the value of reaching his arms as high as possible and getting big.
He's also shown himself to be a useful offensive option in the triangle offense this year. His hook shot looks like a trebuchet slowly being prepared to bomb the basket, but it works! He's already launched 154 hook shots this year, which is significantly more than he took all of last season.
The hook shot is a byproduct of Lopez's space-eating ways. He takes them much like he rebounds: by methodically wedging his defender into an uncomfortable position, establishing his wide base as he pivots and flipping the shot from behind to negate his man's length advantage. Nobody can block his shot because nobody can get around 260 pounds of beef to do it.
His other skills are sneaky, too. When teams ignore him, he can flash to the free throw line, nail a flat-footed 15-footer and even lob hi-lo passes over the top. The Knicks trust those skills more than previous teams, which is why his assist rate has nearly doubled this season.
Lopez is a liability in space, which is why he only plays 26 minutes a game. Nevertheless, his value is clear during the time he does play, and that's enough for a Knicks team that should be prioritizing Porzingis' development. Lopez occupying blockers means Porzingis' exposure to the wrestling matches in the paint are limited until he's gained enough upper body strength. Lopez protects Porzingis, much like he used to protect Aldridge and Amar'e Stoudemire.
There's an alternate Knicks reality where they have Greg Monroe and Lopez is elsewhere. At the time, losing Monroe to Milwaukee seemed like a missed opportunity. Monroe is a bruising post scorer that can pass, while Lopez averaged 10 and seven as a fifth option. Monroe would have been an exciting addition. Lopez doesn't excite a lot of people.
It's clear the Knicks made the right decision in signing the boring guy.