For better or worse, one thing that has to be said about Nate Robinson is that the man embraces the moment.
In the fourth quarter of Saturday afternoon's 142-134 Bulls triple-overtime Game 4 win over the Nets at the United Center, the diminutive scorer had a stretch that won't be forgotten anytime soon, at least not in Chicago.
Robinson had already played a part in the narrative of the game prior to the final stanza, when his rivalry with his Bulls predecessor as backup point guard, Brooklyn's C.J. Watson, turned physical in the second quarter, when Robinson shoved Watson against the scorer's table, resulting in double technical fouls.
"Oh, no. Not at all. It's just two guys being competitive," Robinson said when asked if it had become personal with Watson. "With C.J., he just brings the best out of me. At the same time, you can't get caught up playing in a one-on-one type of game, but it's bigger than that. This is two teams trying to make it to the next round and he's the type of guy that doesn't want to take anything from me, and I don't want to take anything from him, so I'm going to play as hard as I can. He's going to push me, I'm going to push him."
Watson countered: "That's in his character, so it doesn't surprise me."
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Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau has coached both players, so he was diplomatic about the situation.
"I know C.J. well, too, and they're both great competitors, so I wasn't too concerned," he said. "It's the playoffs, guys are going after each other, I love to see fierce competition and I want it stop before it escalates, and there's contact, so if they're talking, that's fine, but I'd rather have them focus on playing. But I like the way Nate's competing."
But while that incident certainly fired up the home crowd, which has no love lost for Watson after his playoff blunder a year ago was perceived to have led to the Bulls' first-round exit, Robinson would put a much more positive stamp on the game later in the afternoon.
The Nets were up up 14 points with 3:13 remaining in regulation when Watson missed a wide-open dunk in transition and along with a bine-crushing screen set on him by Brooklyn small forward Gerald Wallace, that seemed to light a fire under Robinson.
"Well, he's a football player," Kirk Hinrich quipped. "It's like a quarterback needs to get hit a good time before he's really in the game."
The instant-offense scorer, who was already the Bulls' primary offensive source in the fourth quarter, went for 23 points in the period-one short of a playoff franchise record set by Michael Jordan, as well as the most in the postseason by a reserve in team history-including 12 consecutive beginning at the 2:53 mark in the frame.
"[Watson's missed dunk] was huge, but at the same time, I tease my teammates a lot. Me and Rip Hamilton, we tease each other when we're shooting, saying who's hotter. I always tell him, 'I always think I'm on fire.' Kind of like the old-school game NBA Jam. You make a couple, the rim's on fire. When you shoot the ball, the ball's on fire. I feel like that at times-well, all the time-whenever I'm in the game. I just play with a lot of confidence and you've kind of got to lie to yourself, and feel like you can't miss that. You do that and things change in the course of the game," Robinson continued.
"For us as a team, we continue to play hard and each guy out there is having fun, and that's what it's all about. Playing the game that you love for the love of it and competing at the highest level," he said in his postgame press conference, with his son sitting next to him on the podium. "For me, I started out as a kid playing football, so those plays [Wallace's pick] just get you fired up. For me, in a sense, what a great pick. I didn't see it, but at the same time, the referee said it was clean, and I'm going to go back and look at it, and see if it was. Even if it wasn't, it woke me up, so as the tough player that I am, I'm going to continue to go hard as I can, for as long I can. I think our team did that tonight as a whole."
Robinson almost single-handedly brought the Bulls back from the brink of defeat and with under a minute left, he used the element of surprise, finding teammate Carlos Boozer for a layup as the Nets' defense appropriately closed in on him, to tie the game at 109 apiece with 55.4 seconds to go.
Even Robinson's teammates, who have seen the reserve go on huge scoring runs throughout the season, were astounded.
"We all just kept saying to each other that we have enough time to come back. Nate Robinson brought us back. We got stops, got the ball to Nate, got stops and got the ball to Nate. He carried us. He was amazing," Carlos Boozer observed of the 16-2 run that got the Bulls back in the game. "I'm trying to remember that moment. It was a lot of setting screens, rebounding and Nate Robinson.
"It was amazing. Nate put on a show out there. It was like he couldn't miss. We just tried to get him the ball and do what he does. When he's on like that, you have to let him roll and boy, was he rolling.
Hinrich added: "He's a special talent the way he can score and get his shot off. He's been doing it for us all year, especially when we're out there together. He knows he can just do his thing and play his game and he does a great job of it.
His heroics didn't end in regulation, however, as Robinson, who scored a game-high 34 points, hit a deep two-pointer over Brooklyn point guard Deron Williams-improbably, off one leg and off the glass-with two seconds left in the first overtime.
That seemed like a fitting end to the day, but Joe Johnson-the Nets veteran wasn't as prolific as Robinson, but just as clutch-came right back to hit a buzzer-beating floater to tie the contest at 121 apiece and send the contest into a second extra session.
"That just goes back and forth. Joe's a great player," the talkative Robinson said of his on-court conversations with Johnson. He's hit big shots throughout his career and he's a smooth player. When he's out there playing, it looks like he's not even trying-it's like effortless-and I just knew, if the ball was in his hands, you can tell. Each guy's passing him the ball because they knew they could great shots out of him and he made tough shots. Guys like Jimmy and Lu played great defense on him, but he still makes the shot.
"But at the same time, you've got to have that confidence knowing if he makes a shot, you make a shot, no matter who it is on our team, and the ball just finds the great energy and tonight, it was me," he continued. "I'm just a fierce competitor. I hate to lose and I love to win. I'm kind of selfish, you could say, in the sense that I know every guy on our team, we love to win and we hate to lose, and we do a great job of competing, and we're going to continue to do that throughout the series "Not just necessarily me taking over myself. My team just needed a lift. Just playing with a bunch of energy, that's when I'm at my best, getting in the zone, you can say. My teammates do a great job of continuing to feed me. A lot of confidence, a lot of energy and I just take it from there."
Robinson eventually fouled out in the second overtime, but his impact on the game was already set in stone.
Afterward, it was interesting to hear him discuss the Bulls' late-game strategies, in which he claimed that Thibodeau not only was willing to hear his input, but also didn't overly influence the team's offense.
"Just let it happen because when you tend to run plays for guys and the other team knows it's coming to you, you might as well just be spontaneous and whoever gets the shot-Joakim had a big tip-in to send the game into overtime again-and that's how it's got to be. Each guy's got to pick up the slack from the next guy," Robinson explained. "I tease Coach a lot because it seems like every shot I shoot, he's mad regardless, but at the same time, it's basketball. He does a great job of putting us in position to be successful and it's kind of cool because Coach kind of asks us what we want to run when we're hot, what kind of plays we want to run. I just told him, 'Don't call a play for me. Just let the ball find me and we just run the regular offense that we've been running,' and it worked.
"Everybody knows Coach is a drill sergeant, but he has a heart somewhere in there. I know he does," he continued. "He smiles every little blue moon and it's good to see because as hard as the work we put into it, it's good to see that Coach really appreciates it. He doesn't really show it, but he really does, you can tell."
For all of Robinson's idiosyncrasies that might drive Thibodeau crazy at times, the coach acknowledged his value.
"He's a character, now and I had a good understanding of who he is from my experience with him in Boston, and so, you've got to take the whole package and the good outweighs the bad. He's done great for us, he's had a lot of big moments, we've needed his scoring, I think he's making plays better than he ever did, his defense is improving, so he's had a terrific year for us," Thibodeau said. "It was big shot after big shot, but that's what he does. That's what makes him so valuable. It doesn't take much to get him going and once he gets going, he can have a great run and so, I thought he played with a lot of energy. He had some tough calls go against him, but he played a great game."