The irony was front and center as the diminutive Chicago Bulls guard loves the sound of his voice almost as much as he does taking shots, scoring points, irritating opponents and frustrating his coach.
“Nate don’t ever want to be quiet,” Bulls guard-forward Jimmy Butler said. “When he doesn’t want to talk to the media, that’s a first.”
Robinson wasn’t available to news reporters a day after the Bulls defeated the Miami Heat 93-86 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 2 here is scheduled for Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, TNT).
Generously listed at 5-9, Robinson was at the center of Chicago’s seven-game, first-round series win vs. the Brooklyn Nets and its win in Miami.
And yet, Robinson hasn’t made people forget Derrick Rose.
On the contrary, the controversy about the 2011 MVP’s return from anterior cruciate ligament surgery continues to rage, even as Robinson puts up Rose-like numbers. He had a game-high in points (27) and assists (nine) against the Heat, and scored Chicago’s final seven points during a 10-0 run that finished off the victory.
“Remember, this isn’t anything new,” his college coach at Washington, Lorenzo Romar, told USA TODAY Sports. “He has scored 50 points in a game before. The bigger the stage, the taller he gets.”
The wave-off, really, was the highlight. And it tells you everything you need to know about Nate Robinson, Chicago‘s 5’9″ sprite of a point-guard/gunner. About 20 seconds earlier, Robinson had hit a 19-footer to give his team an 88-86 lead against the Miami Heat, the defending champs, winners of 27-straight games at one point this season, employer of freshly-crowned MVP LeBron James, all that, in Game 1 of their second round playoff series. And after Dwyane Wade’s ill-advised heave at the other end failed to give the Heat the lead, Robinson had the ball, and waved-off teammate Joakim Noah, who inched up from the low-post to set a screen on Robinson’s defender, Ray Allen. No matter that Noah is one of the best screeners in the league, and just wanted to help his teammate. No matter that Robinson had 10 stitches in his lower lip, thanks to a first-half collision with James. And that two nights ago, during Chicago’s resilient Game 7 victory against the Brooklyn Nets, on the road, Gerald Wallace of the Nets stomped on Robinson’s head.
No, Robinson, whose utterly ridiculous confidence seems to be rubbing off on these Bulls, wanted Allen one-on-one. Robinson made the right call, dribbling to his left and darting right by Allen into the foul lane, where he lofted a scoop shot over Chris Bosh. Chicago was now up four, 90-86, with 45 seconds left. One James air ball later, it was wrapped up. Chicago pulled off the stunner.
It’s always fun to pull for the “little guy” in sports, and in basketball, this is something of a literal truth.
In a sport that prizes vertical motion and therefore naturally rewards seven-foot behemoths whose height puts them in close proximity to the rim, it’s often easier to root for shorter players, whose smaller statures act as a disadvantage every time they take the court. The (relatively) diminutive point guard Nate Robinson blocking Yao Ming’s shot in 2006 is one of the closest visual representations of David vs. Goliath that sports can provide. And who in their right mind pulls for Goliath?
It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate smaller NBA players and the role they play in basketball culture because—with all due respect to Steph Curry—Robinson, now a guard for the Chicago Bulls, was the breakout star of the 2013 NBA Playoffs’ first round, which concluded over the weekend. Robinson wasn’t the best player during the playoffs’ first two weeks, but he was the most entertaining, consistently filling up highlight reels with ridiculously athletic moves.
Robinson stands 5’9.” That’s about average height for an American male, but on an NBA basketball court, he looks like a fourth-grader tagging alongside a group of high-school students. Through seven playoff games, he has averaged 17 points per game on 50 percent shooting. He recorded the marquee performance of these nascent playoffs in Game Four of Chicago’s series against the Brooklyn Nets by scoring 34 points, including 23 in the fourth quarter, during a 142-134 Bulls victory in triple overtime.
CHICAGO — Early in the fourth quarter Saturday, Gerald Wallace set a hard screen on Nate Robinson in the Nets’ backcourt. Robinson weighs 35 pounds less and is 10 inches shorter than the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Wallace, and the collision had the feel of a puppy running into a Mack truck.
Robinson lay on the floor, facedown, for several moments. But he soon shook his head, steadied himself and rose. He then delivered a memorable, and improbable, playoff performance.
The Bulls trailed by 109-95 with three minutes to play in regulation when Robinson took over. He scored 12 straight points and led the Bulls on a 16-2 run, to the delight of the United Center crowd.
He sank a 3-pointer, then made a driving layup, a jumper and all three free throws after he was fouled on a 3-point attempt. He capped his stretch with an acrobatic floater. Robinson scored 23 points in the fourth quarter, his off-balance runners sometimes finding the basket as if by tracking device.
“Kind of like the old-school game NBA Jam,” Robinson said, referring to a video game. “You make a couple, and the rim’s on fire or the ball’s on fire. I feel like that at times.”
When the 5-9 guard was signed for the veteran’s minimum last July, the hope was that Robinson would provide some bench scoring and off-the-dribble creativity, something that had disappeared from the Bulls’ offense the second Derrick Rose went down. A “pinch hitter” was how ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy described this intended role during a recent telecast, an explosive but streaky player who could come in, take a few big cuts, and, if he didn’t connect, spend the rest of the game watching from the bench.
For the Bulls, though, very little this season has actually gone according to plan. Not only has Rose not yet stepped on the court, but Kirk Hinrich and Rip Hamilton, two guards who were supposed to help carry some of the offensive load, have missed significant time due to injuries. So has Taj Gibson. Loul Deng has missed multiple games, too.
In their absence, the Bulls have been forced to rely on a man whose contract they weren’t even willing to guarantee until well into the season. And while Robinson’s style—both playing and personal—doesn’t necessarily mesh with the strictly business, no-nonsense one of the Tom Thibodeau-led Bulls, he has become an invaluable member of the Rose-less ones, and a major reason why Chicago has been able to weather the storm of injuries that has hit it, and finds itself heading into the Playoffs sitting eight games above .500 and at the fifth spot in the East.
“Stepping in for Kirk, and with DRose being out, I’ve had to pick up a lot of the slack and try to lead these guys to as many victories as possible,” Robinson says. “For me, though, whether I’m starting or coming off the bench, I don’t change anything. My game’s all about the energy, and I’m always going to bring that, no matter what my role is.”