CHICAGO – Nate Robinson unwrapped yards of elastic bandages from around his left shoulder, the bandages finally revealing and releasing a large ice bag on his left shoulder. Robinson had taken a hit from Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole or one of the other Miami Heat players who landed on top of him as if — like Robinson’s Chicago Bulls teammates — he might ride the tough little point guard through what was left of this series.
Robinson winced then and he winced now, nearly an hour after Chicago’s 88-65 loss in Game 4 Monday night at United Center. There were all sorts of miserable franchise playoff records set by the Bulls’ discombobulated offense — fewest points in a game, fewest in a quarter (nine in the third), lowest shooting percentage (25.7 percent) … sputter, gasp, fizzle. Robinson himself was a hot mess: an 0-for-12 night, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range. He had four turnovers to go with four assists, never got to the foul line and played 32:04 without scoring.
The instant-offense backup Chicago had turned to so many times this season and particularly this postseason was, this time, the battery in need of a jump start. No one else had the spark, either, so as their Energizer bunny ran down, so did everything the Bulls hoped to accomplish offensively.
You hold a team to 88 points — 34 in the second half — you ought to be able to win a playoff game. The Bulls never got close. They trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 Wednesday night in Miami.
Robinson, the crush of cameras and reporters finally gone, his sore shoulder finally freed, wadded up the elastic bandages and from the chair in front of his dressing stall, fired them hard to the floor. Well, at least he hit that. He dropped his head into one hand and kept it down for a while.
“Couldn’t make shots,” Robinson said. “You go out there and try to execute, you try to shoot shots that you make every day — every day — and it doesn’t fall, it takes a toll on you. Then you don’t want to feel like you’re hurting the team by shooting the ball, and that goes not just for me, I could see it on other guys’ faces.”
The Bulls trailed 11-2 in the first five minutes. They fell behind by 10 early in the second quarter and then, in the third, the bottom dropped out. They took 13 shots and missed 11. Robinson went 0-for-6. The nine points they did score stirred ugly echoes of their 10-point quarter against Miami in a 2011 East finals game that didn’t go well either.
By the end, their half of the stats sheet was whack-a-doodle: Twelve assists, 17 turnovers, 19 field goals. Miami had nine steals, blocked nine shots and contested or cut down angles on just about everything else. And the focal point of it all was Robinson, who got the sort of treatment normally reserved for Derrick Rose.
“All day,” said Bulls veteran Richard Hamilton, dusted off in desperation after being warehoused for 2 1/2 months, more or less. “I told him that in Game 1 against Brooklyn, but Brooklyn didn’t do it. You’ve got to expect them to trap you. When you’re a scorer and you’re going against great defensive teams, they’re going to do everything possible to take you out of the game. So now you’ve got to figure out different counters and read their defense and find different openings.”
Said Robinson: “They did a good job defending, of course. But I had a lot of open shots that I missed. Floaters that I usually make that I missed. Can’t make every shot. But at the same time, you’ve got to know when it’s not your night.
“They’ve got so many athletic guys who can make up the space between two guys and guard two at once. They do a great job of trapping you on the pick-and-rolls. You’ve got to find out who the open guy is. … They’ve always played me with traps and got the ball out of my hands. But that’s cool – that’s the beauty of basketball, you’ve got to make adjustments.”
There isn’t much left to adjust. As plucky as the Bulls were in bouncing Brooklyn in seven games, as impressive as they were in slapping Miami awake in Game 1 of this series, the reality of their monumental chore is at hand.
Without Rose, without Luol Deng, without Kirk Hinrich, they are trying to stop a locomotive with a butterfly net. Drained by the physical demands, drained by the emotions of it all, they are weary of chasing the moving finish line for Rose’s tease of a return, dangled and constantly snatched away. They are weary, period.
“They’re kind of putting screws and bandages everywhere,” forward Taj Gibson said, “And it’s frustrating every night. Every day. We’re just trying to fight through it.”
None of them has fought harder, battling uphill throughout, than the 5-foot-9 Robinson, the coach’s dream-slash-nightmare-slash-dream. He’s scoring in bunches and, with his play on this stage, earning himself a big contract somewhere (though not with the luxury tax-phobic Bulls).
Still, as noted by Hamilton, “You can’t just play hard. Playing hard is great and everything, but you’ve got to execute. You’ve got to make shots. You got to defend. You’ve got to get to loose balls. You play hard, you’ll stay in the games. But that doesn’t always win games.”
It takes execution and talent, energy and numbers, and the Bulls are scraping bottom on all fronts. The Legend of Nate Robinson is going the same way … ending with a thud in a thicket of Heat defenders’ arms and legs.
If Game 4 was the Bulls’ final home game of their long, maddening season, free agent-to-be Robinson — the source of so many thrills and newfound respect — went out in the worst way possible. Not that he’s done yet.
“There’s a lot left in the tank,” Robinson insisted, while surrounded by doubters. “The thing about it, it’s like, you never know when that beautiful story’s gonna happen. Down 3-1, you never know. Take ‘em to Game 7, we end up winning, it’s going to be a beautiful story to tell. I’ll tell my kids someday.”