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.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell wins throwback Dunk Contest with Vince Carter tribute

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LOS ANGELES — The 2018 Dunk Contest went retro.

And it worked.

The throwbacks started with Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. going quick-change to pay tribute to his father, the 1984 winner of the Dunk Contest.

Nance later had the best dunk of the night, but it wasn’t enough in the face of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell‘s strong and consistent night highlight by his throwback dunk — donning a Vince Carter Toronto dinosaur jersey and doing VC’s famed 360 dunk — which got Mitchell the 48 points he needed to hold-off Nance and win the contest. It was over.

“Growing up I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, which is incredible.

“So I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know. And actually, funny story is I haven’t made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it. Tried it last night, didn’t make it… But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”

Earlier in the night, Mitchell had done another tribute worn a Darrell Griffith jersey — Utah’s Dr. Dunkenstien, who went to Louisville like Mitchell — for an off-the-side-of-the-backboard jumping over Kevin Hart dunk.

“You know, just knowing your history, I think, is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said of the throwbacks. “Just understanding where this game originated, I guess the OGs of the game, I guess you would call it. But just understanding. Even if it’s just dunking. Whether it’s dunking in the NBA in general, Darrell Griffith, we went to the same school in college. I know Darrell very well. Both got drafted by the Jazz, and he was an incredible player. To be able to pay homage to him meant a lot to me.”

For my money, Nance had the dunk of the night, his first in the Finals, a double off-the-backboard throwdown that you had to see on replay to get (it wasn’t as evident in the building what he had done until it was re-shown on the big screen).

It was a fun contest all night long.

Mitchell (the leader in the Rookie of the Year race) started it off brilliantly — he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Larry Nance Jr. did his tribute to his father with his first dunk, and on his second one came from behind the backboard, going around the world, and threw it down hard. That got him into the Finals.

Oladipo missed all three of his dunks in the first round, which almost doomed his night. He, however, did a dunk wearing the Black Panther mask for his second dunk, which impressed.

Mitchell said he wanted to beat Dennis Smith Jr. because the Mavericks’ point guard had beaten him in dunk contests for years. Smith had one monster dunk, when he went between the legs and threw it down hard and got the full 50. It just wasn’t enough to get Smith to the Finals.

Nance started off the final round by bringing out his father again to throw an alley-oop to a windmill. Mitchell responded with a self-alley-oop to a windmill that was flat-out wicked. That got Mitchell a 50-46 lead after one round of the Finals.

Then Mitchell went to Vince Carter and “it was over.”

Larry Nance Jr. throws alley-oop to himself, throws alley-oop to himself (video)

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LOS ANGELES — Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. immediately motioned for the replay to be shown of this dunk. It was necessary to properly appreciate it.

Best dunk of the night.

Donovan Mitchell won the dunk contest, though.

Larry Nance Jr. plays tribute to father — rock-the-cradle dunk in Suns uniform

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LOS ANGELES — Back in 1984, high-flying Larry Nance Sr. won the first NBA All-Star Dunk Contest with this set of dunks — most famously a rock-the-cradle move.

Larry Nance Jr. came into the 2018 Dunk Contest and went nostalgic — all the way back to the Suns’ throwback uniform and the same dunk.

That and a good second dunk got him into the Dunk Contest finals. In that round, Nance Sr. threw an alley-oop to his son for the windmill.

Donovan Mitchell throws alley-oop to himself – off second backboard (video)

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LOS ANGELES – Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell set a high standard with the first slam of the 2018 dunk contest.

Very creative. Very well-executed.

Looks like all that preparation paid off.