It seems fitting somehow that in a playoff game where the teams involved combined to score 276 points, had a whopping 13 players in double figures, and needed three overtimes to decide the outcome, the smallest player on the floor had the biggest impact of all.
Mind you, there were significant contributions on both sides. The Nets got them from Deron Williams (32 points, 10 assists, 2 blocks), Brook Lopez (26 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks), Joe Johnson (22 points, 10-for-20, 3 rebounds), Gerald Wallace (17 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists) and Reggie Evans (15 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks).
Meanwhile, the Bulls got big-time performances from Carlos Boozer (21 points, 10-for-16, 8 rebounds), Kirk Hinrich (18 points, 7-for-12, 14 assists), Joakim Noah (15 points, 13 rebounds, 4 blocked shots) and Luol Deng (15 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists).
But none were bigger than what they got out of little Nate Robinson.
It’s a little hard to figure considering the circumstances. After all, Robinson has become something of an NBA vagabond. In the past four years, he has played for the Knicks, Celtics, Thunder, Warriors and Bulls without really catching on anywhere.
Robinson had some good days with the Knicks — averaging 17.2 points per game and compiling a Player Efficiency Rating of 18.9 in 2008-09 — before falling out of then-coach Mike D’Antoni’s favor (not to mention his rotation) and eventually getting traded to Boston. He played a limited role in Beantown before getting shipped to Oklahoma City as an add-in to the Jeff Green-for-Kendrick Perkins trade. Robinson played only four games for the Thunder before getting waived. Last season, he signed with the Warriors as a free agent and played reasonably well for them — 11.1 PPG, 4.5 APG, 18.0 PER — but was not re-signed when the season ended.
Last summer, Chicago’s front office was in full cost-cutting mode, and the Bulls signed Robinson to a one-year deal reportedly worth about $850,000.
To put that into perspective, that is apparently the same amount the Bulls spent on Vladimir Radmanovic. Only Daequan Cook, Louis Amundson and Malcom Thomas have made less from the Bulls this season.
And yet — by the numbers — Robinson has been one of the team’s most productive players.
I’m serious. Check it out for yourself. Robinson leads the team in Points Per 36 minutes (18.5), three-point percentage (.405), Effective Field Goal Percentage (.510), Assist Percentage (31.4) and Steal Percentage (2.2). He ranks second in PER (17.4), True Shooting Percentage (.540), Offensive Rating (108) and Offensive Win Shares (3.5). He also ranks third in Win Shares per 48 Minutes (.136) and fourth in total Win Shares (5.9).
Not bad for a kid from Seattle playing on a minimum contract.
Then again, Robinson’s life has been all about defying the odds. Despite standing only 5’9″ — and a short 5’9″ at that — Nate had a successful collegiate career at Washington University, where he played both basketball and football. Robinson helped lead the basketball team to two straight NCAA tournament bids and a Sweet 16 appearance in 2005. His football career wasn’t quite as distinguished, but he did have a key interception in the 2002 Apple Cup that helped set up the Huskies to beat the Washington State Cougars, who were ranked number three in the country at the time.
Robinson was drafted in 2005 and is still in the league despite the fact that no team ever seems to want to hang onto him. He has won three NBA Slam Dunk contests…the only player in league history to do so.
I’m not sure the Bulls expected all that much out of Robinson this season. He was a gun for hire, an energy guy off the bench, somebody who could occasionally provide instant offense with Derrick Rose out of action.
Which is exactly what he did.
Sure, there were nights when he drove his coaches and teammates crazy. The popular refrain is that Nate can shoot you into games…and he can shoot you out of them. And at times, his decision-making on passes and shot selection is questionable at best. But by and large, Robinson’s good has outweighed his bad.
Then came yesterday’s improbably playoff victory.
It was a game the Bulls probably had no business winning. They were down by 14 points (109-95) with about three minutes to go. Disappointed fans were filing out of the United Center in mild disgust. The Bulls aren’t a top offensive team — they ranked 24th in Offensive Efficiency during the regular season — and the idea of them overcoming a 14-point deficit in a few minutes seemed about as probable as lead spontaneously transforming into gold.
To that point, it appeared as if the most meaningful contribution Robinson was destined to make in this game was a near-fight with C.J. Watson in the second quarter. But Robinson orchestrated an epic 14-0 run, scoring the first 12 on his own and then finding Boozer for the final two. The Bulls still had to sweat out a couple free throws by Lopez and get a putback from Noah to force overtime, but Robinson’s offensive explosion was beyond epic.
Said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau: ”It was big shot after big shot, but that’s what he does. That’s what makes him so valuable. It doesn’t take him much to get going and when he gets going, he can go on a big run.”
Despite the tribute, I often get the feeling that Robinson’s scoring exploits offend Thibodeau’s sensibilities even as they save his team’s butt. After all, Thibodeau lives in a world where basketball is about defense, rebounding and outhustling your opponent. To Thibs, basketball is won by hard work, not hot hands.
But hot hands sure help.
Few players can light it up the way Robinson does on occasion. And Robinson is the only player currently on the Bulls roster who can do it. In some ways, he’s even more combustible than a healthy Rose, if only because he’s a better three-point shooter. And the secret to Nate’s success is an inner confidence that says: “I can make every shot.”
Said Robinson: ”I always think I’m on fire. Like the old school game, ‘NBA Jam,’ you make a couple and the rim’s on fire and when you shoot the ball, the ball’s on fire. I feel like that at times. Well, all the time. When I’m in the game, I play with a lot of confidence and you kind of got to lie to yourself that you can’t miss.”
The ultimate believe in oneself. How else do you explain Robinson scoring a game-high 34 points on 23 shots in 29 minutes? The personal 12-point run? The running 23-foot bank shot with two seconds left in the first overtime that nearly won the game?
Robinson scored 23 points on 11-for-16 shooting in the fourth quarter. He added another 6 points before fouling out in the second overtime. The only other time in the last 15 seasons that a player scored 29 points after the third quarter was when LeBron James dismantled the Pistons back in 2007. And had he scored one more point in the fourth, Robinson would have tied Michael Jordan for the most points ever scored by a Bulls player in the fourth quarter.
That’s right. Nate Robinson. In the same sentences with LeBron and MJ. Not bad company.
That’s why Robinson’s accomplishment stands out in a game full of brave performances. Like Kirk Hinrich playing 60 minutes, or Noah going 49 despite limping around on a foot riddled with plantar faciitis. I haven’t forgotten or overlooked Deng feeding Noah for a huge dunk with 1:18 left in the second overtime, or Nazr Mohammed hitting a hook and later grabbing a key offensive rebound in the third overtime. There were so many big plays yesterday. So many guys stepping up. Willing themselves on.
But I will always remember this game because of Robinson’s legendary performance.
The Nets, on the other hand, are left to rue a game that got away from them. The 16 missed free throws. A missed dunk by C.J. Watson right before Robinson’s big fourth quarter run. And a late disappearing act by Williams (2-for-11 in the fourth quarter and overtimes).
Said Williams: ”We made a lot of mistakes up 14. It was so long ago, I can’t remember what all went on. We had the missed dunk. Missed free throws. I fouled Nate on the 3. We made a lot of mistakes in the fourth quarter.”
And now the Bulls are poised the finish off the Nets and move on to round two.
Three wins down. One to go.