MIAMI — In a career where he’s often been regarded as more of a novelty act than an actual basketball player, Nate Robinson has been perhaps the breakout star of the NBA playoffs thus far.
The diminutive instant-offense guard had his moments during the regular season, but three of his postseason performances have arguably elevated him to legendary clutch status.
There was his still hard-to-believe fourth-quarter takeover in the Bulls’ Game 4 triple-overtime win over the Nets, another stellar outing in the Game 6 loss in which he had the flu and could be seen vomiting on the sideline during timeouts. Most recently, his role in Monday night’s Game 1 road win over the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals has drawn rave reviews.
But while public opinion of Robinson has changed outside of Chicago, where he’s been a fan favorite throughout his debut Bulls campaign, Joakim Noah claims that his teammate is still the same guy he was when he was winning NBA dunk contests in a Knicks uniform and having epic Finals press conferences with former Celtics teammate Glen “Big Baby” Davis in Boston.
“It’s the same. It hasn’t changed; always talking, whether he was an opponent or teammate. He’s nonstop energy. It’s intense, man,” the All-Star center said. “He’s an unbelievable talent. You tell me a player under 6-foot ever that’s better than Nate Robinson. He’s the best.”
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A handful of retired players, like Calvin Murphy, Muggsy Bogues and Michael Adams could quibble with Noah’s proclamation, but the point was made and after Robinson’s 27-point, nine-assist outing in the series opener -- most of his impact coming in the second half, after suffering a busted lip after league MVP LeBron James crushed him while the two players were hustling for a loose ball -- a slight exaggeration can be tolerated.
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who also coached Robinson in Boston, holds the scoring point guard to a high standard and isn’t satisfied with another scene-stealing moment.
“He’s still capable of playing a lot better. We need him to play both sides of the ball. He’s got to be aggressive, he’s got to play for 48 minutes and he has to stay disciplined,” he said. “Again, it’s one game and the Heat are a great defensive team, so he made some tough shots and when he gets double-teamed, we expect him to make the right play, hit the open man and he’s shown that he’s capable of doing that. And then we have a guy like Joakim, who’s in the middle of the floor and can make very good decisions. Hopefully, in the fourth quarter that’s when you want to be at your best.”
At the same time, the disciplinarian coach has an appreciation for Robinson’s growth and his toughness.
“You know what, it’s interesting. He hasn’t missed a practice either. He’s been a catalyst for our team. It doesn’t take much for him to get going," Thibodeau said. "He’s been invaluable coming off the bench. He played very well with Kirk when Kirk was in there and he was at the two. But he’s a big shot maker, he’s got a lot of courage at the end of the game and not afraid, so he’s done a great job for us all season long."
“I think he’s grown with his experience. Each year, I think he’s improved. I think he understands how to play to his strengths, cover up his weaknesses. I think his teammates understand what his strengths and weaknesses are, and I think that’s important."
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For Robinson, who scored nine of the Bulls’ final 12 points in a game-ending 10-0 run — he assisted on the other three points, a Marco Belinelli triple. Robinson's final field goal of the evening, a driving finger roll layup, was particularly special because it came with childhood hero Ray Allen, who played for his hometown Seattle SuperSonics earlier in his career, guarding him.
“I looked up to Ray for the majority of my childhood. He played for the Sonics. I used to do a lot of shooting drills with him and I was in Boston with him, and I know Ray. My main objective was just to attack and Coach always says, ‘Make the bigs do their job. If they come over and block it, they block it,’ and I was going to be aggressive,” Robinson recounted after Monday's game. “I waved Jo off because I didn’t want them to switch on the pick-and-roll with LeBron. I was like, ‘Nah, we’ll go back and see what happens,’ and I ended up making the layup.”
But for all his toughness, Robinson -- who declined to speak to the media during the Bulls’ Tuesday media availability at the team’s downtown Miami hotel because of the appearance of his lip, for which he received 10 stitches during the game -- was the object of some good-natured ribbing by his teammates.
“Yeah, he’s a prima donna, man. He’s mad,” Taj Gibson joked. “But that’s part of basketball. I told him, ‘Wear a mouthpiece.’ It’s one of those series where you always have to have your guard ready. It’s going to be a physical series, guys are real strong. That’s what’s going to happen.”