CHICAGO – The team for which nothing comes easy these days got bailed out by the player for whom nothing comes easy ever.
Nate Robinson is a lot of things. He’s a remarkable athlete and presumably a dynamite NFL cornerback, had he ever pursued that, but at a fudged 5-foot-9, vertically challenged for his chosen field. Robinson is a parlor trick among NBA performers, a three-time Slam Dunk champion. He is that rare love-him-and-hate-him player, someone whose exploits and mishaps can flip the switch for teammates and fans without notice, frequently on consecutive possessions.
For those who have coached him at this level, he is a part super-sub, part pact with the devil. Coach Tom Thibodeau, Doc Rivers, Scott Brooks and the others face-palm over his shot selection, rail at his reckless passes and shake their heads when his needle hits red. Sometimes, even Nate can’t recall moments later why he did what he just did, except that his temper or his shenanigans probably put points on the board for the other guys.
Mostly, though, Robinson is one of those basketball itinerants who has built his NBA resume contract year by contract year, sometimes contract game by contract game. Ever since debuting as a rookie with the New York Knicks and fraying nerves there for 4 1/2 years, Robinson has been in motion. Five teams in the past four seasons and, chances are, six in five when he lands elsewhere by October for 2013-14.
But then he goes and does what he did to the Brooklyn Nets Saturday afternoon at United Center, slapping paddles on a game long gone and zapping it back to life for him and his teammates of the moment. Contract game? Lil Nate had himself a podium game. Three overtimes high.
“That was one of the greatest playoff performances I’ve seen,” veteran Bulls center Nazr Mohammed said an hour after Chicago beat the Nets 142-134 in triple-OT. “Especially in the second half. He willed us back … we were what, down 14 at the time? He just made offensive play after offensive play and put us in position to even get this victory.
“I mean, this game is Nate’s win.”
Aw heck, why stop there? For a good stretch of an amazing afternoon in the Windy City, it was Nate’s world. Everyone else either was grinding through three overtimes alongside him, watching slack-jawed or both. That silly cliche about only the last five minutes mattering in an NBA game? The trick Saturday was knowing which five minutes would be the last.
“It was amazing. He put on a straight show out there,” Chicago’s Carlos Boozer said. “It was like he couldn’t miss. We just kept giving him the ball and let him do what he does.”
The fourth quarter began routinely enough, with Brooklyn dusted off from an early hole and pushing ahead by eight, then 10. Robinson’s first nine points of the period were shrug-worthy, because the Bulls slipped further behind, trailing 109-95 with 3:45 left.
Dozens of fans got up and headed to the exits, though most of them are lying about it already.
So it was going to get worse when Nets guard C.J. Watson stole the ball from Robinson and broke downcourt for what, for him, was an uncharacteristic dunk attempt (ex-Bull, rubbing it in a little, right?). Except Watson missed – the crowd hooted, stoked by some earlier shoves between Robinson and Watson. Brooklyn’s Reggie Evans got the ball, got fouled – and missed both free throws.
That’s when Nate happened. He drained a 3-pointer. He burst in for a driving layup. He nailed a 16-foot jumper. He got whacked from behind the arc and coolly made all three free throws. Then, at 1:11, he pulled up at the right elbow and shot over Nets center Brook Lopez to get Chicago within 109-107.
“We got a stop and we got the ball to Nate,” Boozer said.
Robinson’s 23 points in the quarter came within one of tying Michael Jordan (his hero) for the most in a single period in Bulls’ playoff history. Then something truly amazing happened. Next time down for the Bulls, Robinson went pure point guard and found Boozer, whose reverse layup tied it at 109, at 55.4 seconds left. There would be seven more ties across the next 15-plus minutes before anyone could go home.
“It’s not necessarily me taking over,” Robinson said. “The team needed a lift and that’s when I’m usually at my best. … I always feel like I’m on fire. That way, in a game, I can play with a lot of confidence.”
Not always with Thibodeau’s blessing, however. Every so often, Robinson yo-yos the ball too long to eat up precious shot clock or, as he did in the second quarter on a fast break, launches a 3-pointer too quickly. When it drops, Thibodeau and the rest of ‘em have to swallow their bile. When it doesn’t …
“It seems every shot I take, he’s mad,” Robinson joked afterward. “He’s like a drill sergeant but I know there’s a heart in there somewhere. I just keep shooting and hope to make them. Then he can’t say much.”
Thibodeau was seen actually cracking a smile after the game, though Robinson probably won’t believe it.
Robinson wasn’t done quite yet. He almost won it in the first overtime when, in “iso” mode at 119-119, he hoisted a running bank shot from 22 feet that improbably dropped through. Left with two seconds on the clock, though, Joe Johnson‘s jumper queued up another five minutes.
And then, finally, Nate was done. At 127-126 Bulls, he shoved off against Deron Williams for his sixth foul with 1:03 left in the second overtime. The jumper cables were off, yet the engine kept running. In time, Joakim Noah (who already had blown through his sore-foot minutes limit by 10) and Taj Gibson would foul out, too, but each man who subbed in – Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Mohammed late – seemed to draw from Robinson’s energy or at least example.
The Bulls’ dressing room after looked like a train had rolled through. Players slumped in their chairs, ice bags and ice tubs everywhere. The minutes load had been ridiculous: Nearly 60 minutes on the floor for Kirk Hinrich. Almost 57 for Luol Deng. It was the same thing 30 yards down the hall – 58 minutes for Williams, 51 for Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Evans fouling out in overtime, and so on – yet at the Bulls’ end, the bodies were drained but the eyes burned bright.
They were up 3-1 in the first-round series, all that work hadn’t been for naught and their character-in-residence had gone Seussian: Good Nate, bad Nate, late Nate, great Nate!
“The basketball gods were on our side,” said Noah, “because being down 10 [14 actually] with 3 1/2, four minutes left, we just stayed with it and Nate took over offensively. That’s what he does. He’s done that for us more than a few times this year. He did it on a huge, huge stage. To be able to play in a triple-overtime game and to win, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
The best feeling, and a far different mood than the one that permeated United Center 364 days earlier, when a certain irrepressible Bulls guard not named Nate became the story late in a Saturday playoff matinee for all the wrong reasons. Robinson thrilled people in the building like Derrick Rose Saturday, and there was nothing small about that.