DALLAS — Back in Chicago for a late October preseason game, Nuggets guard Nate Robinson acknowledged how much he missed his old Bulls teammates with whom he’d been through so much during last season’s inspiring and trying ride without Derrick Rose.
Exactly a month later, with Rose having undergone season-ending knee surgery Monday, it’s the Bulls who might miss Robinson more than they could have imagined.
An important offensive spark and a big-shot maker during his one season with Chicago, Robinson never got the chance to play with Rose. Just four nights ago, he faced off against him in Denver, going for 11 points and three assists to help his new club beat the Bulls by 10. The next night at Portland, Rose tore the meniscus in his right knee just 10 games into his return from the torn ACL in his left knee that kept him out all of last season.
“Sad,” Robinson told NBA.com Monday night as the Nuggets prepared to face the Dallas Mavericks. “It’s sad for me, it’s sad for him, I know for sure. My son was really sad about it because he loved Derrick Rose. He got a picture with him last year. He was so excited.”
The entire NBA was excited to have Rose, the 2010-11 league MVP, back in action. Suddenly, and sadly, everybody’s wondering if Chicago can reset again without their star point guard and grind out another season without him. That process has started excruciatingly slow in the immediate aftermath. On Sunday in Los Angeles, the Clippers hammered the Bulls by 39 points, 121-82. Playing at one-win Utah on Monday, the Bulls struggled again, losing, 89-83 to the Jazz in OT.
“It’s tough. It’s definitely going to hurt them, but they’re tough, man,” Robinson said. “They’ll figure out a way to win. They always do.”
They’ll have to do it without the bolt of energy that is the 5-foot-9 Robinson, who produced one of those familiar scoring flurries in Dallas with 17 points, 13 coming in the fourth quarter that included three 3-pointers to help the Nuggets get a 110-96 road win. With Chicago, Robinson averaged 25.4 mpg and played in all 82 games for the injury-riddled squad. He averaged 13.1 ppg and 4.4 apg for the Bulls, and 16.3 ppg during their gritty playoff run into the East semifinals that included an unforgettable 34-point explosion in the triple-overtime Game 4 win in the first round against the Nets.
Robinson started 23 games and was indispensable to Chicago’s success considering Kirk Hinrich, who again takes over as the starting point guard, played in just 60 games last season.
In Sunday’s loss to the Clippers, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau started Mike Dunleavy alongside Hinrich with regular starter Jimmy Butler (sprained big toe) still injured. Monday night at Utah, Thibodeau gave rookie Tony Snell the start. At the point, Chicago also has veteran journeyman Mike James and second-year point guard Marquis Teague, who played in 48 games last season and had played in just half of the Bulls’ first 12 games.
Considering the circumstance, Robinson, who signed a two-year, $4.1-million free-agent deal with the Nuggets, would likely again be counted on as a big-minute contributor in Chicago. But he’s long gone.
“I don’t know what they need. I don’t know nothing about it,” Robinson said of the Bulls’ predicament. “I know these guys here, I got their backs, my new teammates.”
It hasn’t been instant success start for Robinson, 29, in Denver, which has a glut of backcourt players with Randy Foye starting alongside Ty Lawson, and a bench that includes veteran Andre Miller, who still logs 18.9 mpg, plus second-year swingman Evan Fournier. New coach Brian Shaw is playing Robinson 16.9 mpg. He’s averaging 7.5 ppg and 2.3 apg. He’s shooting 34.4 percent from the floor, although 40.6 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
After a sluggish start to the season, the up-tempo Nuggets are now 7-6 and on a three-game win streak as they adjust to Shaw’s more inside-out offensive approach. Forward Wilson Chandler recently returned to the lineup and at some point forward Danilo Gallinari will make his return from the ACL injury he sustained last April.
Still, the Nuggets are getting up and down the floor, a quick pace that seems a natural fit for the frenetic Robinson.
“I just like to play basketball,” he said.