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.