Chicago Bulls v Miami Heat - Game One

Nate Robinson: The people’s champion

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If you only watch the last quarter of NBA playoff games, you have to be asking, “what is not to love about Nate Robinson?”

We love the plucky underdog and Robinson is that — a guy listed at 5-foot-9 who has won the dunk contest twice. A guy leading a Bulls team so banged up they are pretty much ready to pull guys out of the front row and suit them up, past the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the second round of the NBA playoffs. Robinson has been the NBA’s leading fourth quarter scorer these playoffs (he’s combined 82 points and assists in the fourth quarter these playoffs, 20 ahead of Kevin Durant) and the Bulls are still playing because of him.

It’s easy to like him if you’re a fan. He has a big personality; he plays with confidence and his emotions on his sleeve (well, if the NBA allowed sleeves).

The NBA is full of guys it’s hard for fans to relate to — you have to win the genetic lottery to be 6-8 and athletically gifted — but Robinson is a normal sized guy who makes plays among the trees of the Association. Fans eat that up. They relate to Robinson. They want more Robinson. Far more than his coaches ever have.

“God blessed me with a lot of heart and no height, and I’ll take that any day,” Robinson said after the Bulls win Monday. That’s the kind of statement that will win him even more admirers.

Fans (particularly casual fans) have always loved the way he played. They loved him at Ranier Beach High School in Seattle where he was a three-sport star. They loved him at the University of Washington where he was an undersized defensive back on the football team (All Pac-10 Freshman Team)  and an undersized point guard on the basketball team. He had options but wanted to play in the NBA and was drafted in the first round.

He had his hero moments that endeared him to fans in New York. In Boston he was “donkey” to Glen Davis’ “Shrek” and won them Game 5 of the NBA finals in 2010. He’s made fans in Oklahoma City (but coach Scott Brooks buried him on the bench in the playoffs because he had better options). He’s had his moments with Golden State.

And we all remember Nate Robinson, the little guy who won the All-Star Dunk Contest. Twice.

So why has a guy who has averaged 18.3 points per game these playoffs, who has been a fourth quarter beast, bounced around the NBA like a pinball?

Because he doesn’t always play like this.

The incredible confidence that allows Robinson to attack and fearlessly take shots at the end of games is a double-edged sword — when he is 0-15 he is not going to stop shooting. Making them or not, he is going to take bad shots — they thrill the crowd when they are falling, they make coaches reach for the Tums when they don’t. And even when they do.

More than that, his size makes him a defensive liability. Well, his size and the fact Robinson likes to gamble on defense. His style on defense is classic Robinson — his risks mean some amazing steals and plays that thrill the crowd, but also means missed assignments that lead to great shots for the opposition.

Nate giveth and Nate taketh away.

Which is not Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s style. He just has no choice, his roster is so banged up he has to start and play Robinson heavy minutes.

And he has been rewarded — Bulls have been rewarded — with some of the most entertaining basketball in Chicago in a long, long time. When Nate is good, he is very, very good.

Robinson will get rewarded a little this summer — he is an unrestricted free agent and he will get a payday somewhere. There are teams that could use his skillset, his personality.

I think one astute Bulls fan summed it up well on Twitter late Monday night: “I have never loved a player so much I don’t want back on the team next year.”

But they want him on the floor right now. Especially with the game on the line.

NBA: 76ers got away with violation before Robert Covington’s late 3-pointer against Trail Blazers

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Robert Covington hit the game-winning 3-pointer in the 76ers’ 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers on Friday, but that wasn’t Covington’s only triple as Philadelphia overcame a four-point deficit in the final 40 seconds. He also buried a 3-pointer with 38 seconds left.

The catch: That shot came after Philadelphia should have turned the ball over, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

Gerald Henderson missed a 3-pointer, and Dario Saric prevented the rebound from going out of bounds, saving the ball with a pass to Covington. Except Saric got away with stepping out of bounds with the ball with 42.1 seconds left, per the league:

Saric’s (PHI) left foot is out of bounds when he makes contact with the loose ball.

That would’ve given Portland the ball up four.

The 76ers overcome the odds to win this game. But a correct call might have produced too steep of a hill for Philadelphia to climb.

NBA: Heat got away with two violations before clutch 3-pointer in win over Mavericks (video)

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Dirk Nowitzki entered Miami nostalgic about returning to the place he led the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title.

He left with a 99-95 loss to the Heat.

But perhaps correct officiating down the stretch would have produced a different result.

Before Tyler Johnson hit a key late 3-pointer, Miami got away with two violations, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report.

First, Goran Dragic should’ve been called for travelling with 1:47 left:

Dragic (MIA) moves his pivot foot.

Failing that, Hassan Whiteside should’ve been whistled for a three-second violation with 1:45 left:

Whiteside (MIA) is in the paint for longer than three seconds.

Either call would’ve ended the Heat’s possession. Instead, they kept swinging the ball until Johnson hit his 3-pointer.

We’ll never know how the game would’ve played out with a correct call, but at different points, Dallas trailed by just two and three while having to intentionally foul.

Raptors Kyle Lowry was ejected Sunday for blow to Brandon Knight’s head (VIDEO)

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Kyle Lowry has had an All-Star worthy season, but he’s had a rough few games.

His jumper has gone missing the last three games — he is shooting 35.4 percent overall and 25.9 percent from three in those games. Not coincidentally, all three of those are Raptors losses.

Then on Sunday, he struck the Suns’ Brandon Knight in the head as Knight drove the lane. Lowry made an ill-advised swipe at the ball after Knight got past him and smacked Knight on the head. Lowry was given a Flagrant 2 and was ejected, which was the right call.

Lowry took responsibility for the hit and said after the game he texted Knight to apologize, that he wasn’t a dirty player and didn’t intend to do hurt Knight. Classy move. But Lowry still could face a fine from the league for this.

Three things we learned Sunday: Roller coaster Laker season has some deep, deep dips

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 29:  Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers watches play during a 101-89 Dallas Mavericks win at Staples Center on December 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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With a couple of important football games Sunday you may have missed some other things. Like why a highway was covered in red Skittles. Or, the handful of NBA Games that took place. We can help you with the latter, here are the big takeaways from Sunday.

1) On the anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, Lakers only score 73.
I keep waiting for the day Luke Walton snaps.

He has been the model of the patient, developmental basketball coach of a young team this season — it’s about progress, about lessons learned, about laying a foundation that helps this young core grow into something more dangerous in future years. He has been what the Lakers needed, a departure from last year and he who shall not be named. However, the lack of effort and growth on defense — the continued inability to defend the pick-and-roll — has to be eating at him inside. This is a young team, it’s going to have ups and downs, but the downs have been deep and pronounced, and at some point I expect Walton to just unload on his young charges.

Although if it didn’t happen after Sunday, it might never happen. On the 11th anniversary of Kobe’s 81-point game, the Lakers as a team scored just 73 points. Los Angeles lost by 49 points, a franchise record for worst loss ever. Walton said after the game the Lakers lacked the kind of veteran or natural leader on this team who would take charge on the court and call out his teammates off it in moments like this. Maybe he needs to be that guy.

Comments about the Lakers often talk about a quality young core for them to build around. There is some truth to that. Brandon Ingram has had some better games of late, although on Sunday he was asked to start for the injured D’Angelo Russell and be a playmaker and that failed. Ingram missed his first shot and it got in his head for the rest of the day, throwing off his game. Ingram needs to be a better shot creator (and get stronger). Jordan Clarkson can score the rock, and both he and Larry Nance Jr. are future NBA rotation players who can contribute to very good teams. Then there is Russell — nobody has been more up and down this season than the second-year point guard. A few weeks back I wrote about how he had finally developed a game-day routine and seemed to be turning a corner with a string of strong games. Since then he’s pretty much stunk. He’s developing, although it’s fair to ask if he’s doing that fast enough?

(Still, the Lakers really missed Russell Sunday — he’s the only guard they have who is a threat to score from three or getting into the lane, he’s a good passer who sees the angles on the court, and when he’s out there the ball moves better. This Lakers team lacks shot creators and when Russell is out the offense can stagnate quickly, reverting to one-on-one plays.)

It’s fair to ask why the inconsistent defensive efforts? Well, consistently bad may be the more accurate description. They make bad decisions constantly, and the veterans they have either are not great defenders — Nick Young, Lou Williams — or can be drawn into bad positions, such as Timofey Mozgov having to defend Dirk Nowitzki Sunday.

It’s also fair to ask if the Lakers really have an alpha in this core? Do they have a top 15 NBA player that can be the cornerstone of a future contender? I don’t see it. Maybe Ingram with some muscle and experience on him can get there — scouts are still very high on his game — but I do not see it elsewhere. Plus, I don’t see the alpha, ultra-competitive personality that doesn’t accept losing gracefully. Again, maybe Russell or someone has that and is just not confident showing it yet, but this team lacks it.

With all that, the Lakers development roller coaster seems to have bigger dips than highs. Which has to frustrate Walton. And at some point, he’s going to lose it.

2) The Suns beat the Raptors, and Eric Bledsoe was the reason.
Phoenix has won a couple of game in a row, and while beating the Knicks does not earn guys high praise, beating the Toronto Raptors will do that. Quietly Eric Bledsoe has had a borderline All-Star season — he’s not going to make the team due to the depth of talent in the West and the fact the Suns suck — and he showed it Sunday with an impressive 40 points to get Phoenix the win.

3) The Warriors punish Magic to end week where they asserted themselves. Last week for the Warriors started with a rematch against Cleveland, and Golden State earned a measure of confidence blowing them out. Then the Warriors beat Russell Westbrook and the Thunder thanks to a “look at what you’re missing” game from Kevin Durant. Then the Warriors knocked off the surging Rockets and James Harden.

That’s a good week, although the Warriors still had to face the Magic on Sunday. That had the makings of a potential let down game but the Warriors pulled away for the win.

Golden State has established itself as the best team in the NBA this regular season. There’s still a lot of season (nearly half) to go, and they will get tested in the playoffs, but they have set the mark to beat. Did they set the bar last year, too? Yes. And they made the Finals (and would have won if Draymond Green could keep his hands to himself), not something to ignore. But this season feels different with Durant in the fold. We’ll see. But for right now, they keep right on rolling at 38-6.