Monday, May 6, 2013

The Wondrous Nate Robinson

5-foot-9 Nate Robinson is one of the most remarkable players in NBA history. To be fair, a few players of well under 6 feet in height have carved out a career in the NBA, based on either outlandish leaping ability, otherworldly speed, or both. 5'3" Tyrone "Muggsy" Bogues spent fourteen seasons in the league, including nine as an often-double-digit-assisting starting PG for the Hornets. 5'7" Anthony "Spud" Webb hung around the league for twelve seasons, winning the 1986 All-Star Slam Dunk contest:

5'5" Earl Boykins has hung around the league for parts of thirteen seasons as a wispy, slippery sixth man, although his NBA career may have ended when he couldn't find a spot in training camps last fall.

However, none of those guys ever participated in anything of much importance in the league.  By that standard, the greatest little man ever may be the 5'9" Robinson, who was drafted in the first round in 2005 after a decorated basketball and football career at the University of Washington. Robinson spent his first five seasons with the Knicks as mostly a novelty act, feuding with his coaches and teammates and exchanging fisticuffs too often with teammates and opponents. Exhibiting incredible hops befitting his thick legs (he carries 180 pounds on his averagely-built frame) Robinson won the Slam Dunk Contest at the All-Star Weekend of 2007 (after requiring 14 attempts to complete a spectacular leg-threading slam), of 2009 (figuratively defrocking reigning dunk champ Dwight Howard's Superman cape, which I have previously denounced in this blog as offensive), and 2010.

Believe it or not, the formerly clownish Robinson once dominated crunch time of an NBA Finals game, against the Hall of Fame-bound duo of Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol.  How did this happen?  Just before the trade deadline in February 2010, the Knicks flipped Nate Robinson to Boston for Eddie House, who had grown too stiff to be a credible bench scorer.  In the Finals against the Lakers a few months later, Robinson dribbled past Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, and other strong defenders to score 6 of his 12 points during a crucial fourth-quarter stretch as the Celtics built and held a nine-point lead.  In the postgame interviews, Robinson absurdly likened himself to the Eddie-Murphy-voiced cartoon character "Donkey" from the Shrek movies (and labelled his teammate Glen Davis the ogre Shrek),

Despite his heroics in June of '10, the Celtics traded the mercurial Robinson to Oklahoma City in 2011 as part of a deal for Jeff Green. Thunder coach Scott Brooks wouldn't or couldn't find a way to use Robinson's offensive fury after that trade, and he played only 30 minutes over four games as the season ended, even as the Thunder readied to chase serious playoff fortune. (They reached the conference finals against Dallas that May but still deployed Robinson only for six minutes over two games, both blowout wins, during the playoffs.) Robinson latched on to Golden State after the lockout as a fifth guard and spent the 2011-12 season quietly rebuilding his reputation, finally putting up big offensive numbers as an April starter after Stephen Curry called it quits with an ankle injury. (To be fair, Golden State was actively "tanking" in hopes of landing a top-7 draft pick, thus avoiding the obligation to surrender their pick to Utah stemming from a years-old trade. Thus, Robinson's capacity for winning was still questionable after this stint.)

When the Chicago Bulls cleared their decks of overpriced bench players last summer, they signed Robinson to a single-year, minimum-salaried contract. With Derrick Rose injured all season, Robinson played all 82 games and started 23, as Kirk Hinrich came to play more of a "utility infielder" role over the course of the campaign.  As the Bulls were missing several unhealthy players (just like the previous April), few assigned them much hope in their first-round series against the Nets, but Robinson led the team to victory in seven games, highlighted by his 34-point, 29-minute performance in the triple-overtime Game 4 (featuring 12 straight unanswered points in the final three minutes of regulation to close a huge deficit). Below, the last bucket of the 12-point string:

Robinson also battled through a stomach virus in Game 6 of that series, pausing to vomit several times on the sidelines.  Tonight, Mr. Robinson led the fifth-seeded Chicago Bulls to a victory over Lebron James's Miami Heat team, one day after James collected his fourth MVP trophy, and one week after the Heat completed a stretch of 41 victories in 43 games. As both primary ballhandler and scorer, Robinson registered 27 points on 16 shots and also dished the ball for 9 assists. Down three points with two minutes left, Robinson bounced the ball to Marco Belinelli for a very open corner three-pointer, then broke the tie by scoring seven straight points himself, while the Heat's four Hall of Famers missed five straight shots from the field. Ballgame to the Bulls, 93-86.

Dating to the Brooklyn series, which two members of the JPO collective attended live last week, Robinson is playing at a high level and with a very high level of confidence. While he struggled to defend Nets ace Deron Williams, he will have less trouble against Miami's Mario Chalmers, who is rarely more than a fifth option. Ray Allen often spells Chalmers in late-game situations; Allen, too, is little more than a catch-and-shoot player for Miami, and Robinson should be able to chase the older Allen anywhere he goes on the court. (Robinson also showed little regard for Allen's defensive abilities tonight when the former drove around the much taller Allen for a finger-roll bucket to push the lead to 90-86 with 20 seconds left.)

So Robinson is nearly replicating the offensive leadership that Derrick Rose gave the Bulls in the previous four seasons. Still, Rose could wreak a bit more havoc than Robinson can by tiring out help defenders and drawing fouls. As I have made clear on this blog in the past (if the title did not so inform you), I am no Chicago Bulls fan, but let me offer the following counsel to them: Having stolen the opening frame of the series, and with Russell Westbrook out for the balance of the playoffs, and having seen the Spurs nearly drop their first home game to the Warriors, the Bulls now have a small chance (slim to be sure, but greater than the infinitesimal chance I would have assessed two weeks ago) of winning the NBA championship. Very few teams in any given vernal period ever see their reasonably-handicapped odds rise anywhere above 100:1, so this is an important opportunity. With Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich still nursing health problems, it is time for Derrick Rose, the Bulls' 16-million-dollar man, to get on the court. No offense to the amazing Robinson, of course.

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