Nate Robinson is one of the greats in Seattle sports history. At Rainier Beach, he won a state title and dominated in both football and basketball. At the University of Washington, he played football as a corner, and managed to pick off a pass meant for the 6’6″ Mike Bush in the 2002 Apple Cup, leading to an eventual upset win in triple-overtime. In basketball, he put in three terrific years, culminating in a final ’04-’05 season that included per game averages of 16 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds, not to mention a sweet sixteen appearance.
Despite his incredible athleticism, in-game passion and intensity, and track record of success at the high school and college levels, many doubted that the diminutive guard, listed at 5’9″ but realistically no taller than 5’8″ in shoes, would manage to find success in the NBA. Nonetheless, he was drafted 21st overall by the Suns, and found himself traded before the start of the year to the Knicks.
In New York, Robinson proved that he belonged and improved each year, and his success with the Knicks peaked in an ’08-’09 year that saw him average over 17 points per game in 30 minutes a night. However, Nate’s inconsistency and lack of size led many to see him as a streaky scorer and nothing else, and when he was traded to the Celtics midway through ’09-’10, he saw his minutes decline significantly.
His ability to get hot and change a game was made plain before a national audience in Game 6 of the 2010 Conference Finals, when he scored 13 points in the second quarter, but it didn’t translate into more playing time or a place in Boston’s long-term plans. He was shipped off to OKC along with Perkins in the Jeff Green trade, sat on the bench all year, and signed in early January 2012 with Golden State, where he played a similar role to that of his old Knicks days, averaging 11ppg in 23 minutes.
Before the current season, it seemed like that was Robinson’s destiny as a professional basketball player. To be a guy that could, in the right system, come off the bench as a spark-plug capable of scoring in bunches, but not someone to grant a starting spot or to depend on each and every night. He signed with the Bulls and played all 82 games in just this way, though 13ppg on 43% shooting (including 40% from three-point land) in 25 minutes represented his best play since the peak of his New York stint.
But then the playoffs started, the Bulls took on the Nets without Derrick Rose, and as injuries mounted, without Luol Deng and without Kirk Hinrich. So suddenly Nate Robinson was thrust into a starting role, despite suffering from the flu himself, and in the physical seven game series he played at a much higher level, and with more efficiency, than he had in the regular season. He averaged 17ppg on crisp 50% shooting, including a ridiculous 34 point outburst in the double-overtime win in Game 4.
But while the country was impressed with the resilience displayed by the Bulls in the Game 7 victory at Brooklyn, it was blatantly apparent that it would be the end of the feel good story. With the invincible Heat up next and the trio of Rose, Deng, and Hinrich still unavailable, it looked like a potential sweep in the making.
Until last night, that is, when the undermanned Bulls defeated Lebron’s Heat 93-86 in Miami. Jimmy Butler astounded with his 21 point, 14 rebound effort in a full 48 minutes, all while guarding Lebron, but it was Nate and his efficient (8 of 16 shooting) 27 point, 9 assist night that that made all the difference. Nate played 40 minutes, but would have played significantly more if he hadn’t had his mouth gashed open accidentally by a diving James, requiring him to come out of the game with 4 minutes left in the first half to get 10 quick stitches before he could return to start the third. But even most important were his 11 points and 6 assists in the pivotal fourth quarter. Robinson even hit what was likely the game-sealing shot, a finger-roll in the lane, with 45 seconds left in the contest to put Chicago up 90-86.
Just about everyone but Coach Tom Thibodeau and his players were shocked by the victory. The Heat are the best team in the world, the defending NBA champions. Even if Chicago had Rose, Deng, and Hinrich back fully healthy, the Bulls would have been pegged as an underdog. And yet here Miami was, surrendering a thin four-point lead carried into the final quarter, falling behind 1-0 with a loss on their home court.
And without Nate, it wouldn’t have happened.
So what does this mean for the Bulls? With such a small sample size with this lineup, it’s tough to tell. The logical thing is to point to last year’s playoffs, when the Pacers defeated the Heat in Game 1 only to be promptly smacked in the next four straight. Until at least one more game is played, it’s impossible to know for sure if this was a single game slip-up, if James and Wade and Co. will come back refocused and re-energized and defeat the less-talented and less-healthy Bulls.
But it’s important to realize that these Bulls are not last year’s Pacers. They are something special. Coached by Thibodeau, one of the great defensive coaches in the league, they play hard and they play smart without fail, and over the course of this season they have shown that they can defeat the Heat. In fact, they were the ones that ended the near-historic 27-game win streak towards the end of the regular season. I don’t think that Coach Spoelstra can make a few adjustments and suddenly dominate them for four straight contests.
This is especially unlikely when you consider how great Chicago’s home-court advantage is at the United Center. They just stole a road game, and even if they lose Wednesday, I have confidence that they can win at least one of the next two at home. If the Heat are going to defeat them, it will be a dog-fight in 6 or 7 games, not a cake-walk after a single bad evening.
Still, even with all of the fire and the resilience of Chicago, Miami is better suited to win that kind of drawn-out battle. Coming off of a 7 game series battle with Brooklyn, and severely undermanned, the Bulls are forced to play specific players too many minutes. Jimmy Butler, who is in charge of guarding Lebron James for the whole series, has played 48 minutes in three straight games. Young and well-conditioned as he may be, I don’t think that this is sustainable, and over a full series, these guys playing 40+ minutes may wear down.
Not to mention that while Lebron, Wade, and definitely Bosh have proven themselves capable of significantly better performances, many of Chicago’s key contributors cannot be depended on to produce at such a high level over a whole series. Jimmy Butler played with a ton of grit in amassing 21 points, but who really wants to bet he can do that against Lebron five or six more times? Sure, if he wanes, guys like Boozer and Belinelli who struggled offensively in Game 1 could step up and perform better, but it’s a fragile balance for a team with such a razor-thin bench. They can’t afford an off night, and they definitely can’t afford a single new injury.
The Heat should certainly still be the favorites to win this series. But wouldn’t it be something truly astonishing to witness if they continued to lose?
As for Nate Robinson as an individual? He played pretty well for the Bulls all year long, but he has never played as well over a full season in his nine years as he has played in this postseason. However, I do think that this time, people are noticing. He doesn’t just seem to be on a hot streak, he is also playing better basketball. He is making smarter passes, and his once outrageous shot selection has been reined in some without sacrificing his patented in-game confidence. He believes he can hit anything, but he’s putting himself in position to take more efficient shots. He will never be a great, or even good, defender given his height, and he still has regular mental lapses on that side of the ball, but even these mistakes have been cut down significantly under Thibodeau’s watchful eye.
With every game he plays this well as a starter, I’m becoming more and more convinced that this isn’t a coincidence, or a prolonged hot-streak. I believe it’s a result of a full year in Tom Thibodeau’s system, and a growing maturity in Robinson himself. Thibodeau is a coach that gets everything out of his players, and I think that Robinson is thriving in a system that is allowing him to play creatively, but doesn’t tolerate laziness on defense or wild, hero-ball antics.
A free agent after this season, in which he made the veteran minimum, it’s likely that this stretch, especially if it continues deep into this series or even beyond, will lead a solid contract for Robinson. Maybe that means some struggling team will take a risk on him, sign him to an inflated contract, and hope he can play this way all year long as a starter. If Nate is thinking straight, he won’t go that direction.
He has spoken time and time again over the last few weeks how much he loves this team, how much he loves Chicago. He should accept a solid offer from the Bulls, likely as a sixth-man off the bench once Rose returns (he has to return by next season, right?) to the starting point guard spot, and prove over a full year that he can score his team’s way back into games while continuing to improve his efficiency, both in his shooting and his passing, in a system that brings out the best in him.
I think the Bulls will be more than happy to give him some decent money, especially with all the uncertainty and oddity surrounding Rose’s recovery from his knee injury, as they will need him as a dynamic insurance policy at worst, and will benefit from him as a fiery sixth-man at best. But they are a smart organization, and if teams start waving stupid money at him Jeremy Lin-style, they won’t get into a bidding war for a guy that has not shown he can play at this high level over a long period of time.
I, for one, hope the Bulls continue this wonderful postseason run with Nate the Great leading the charge, and regardless of whether or not they beat the Heat, I hope Robinson realizes the value of his role in Chicago, and chooses to stay there in the future, even if it means signing a discounted contract.