By Chris Mahr
It was nine years ago that I — along with plenty of other college hoops fans — sat up and first took notice of a diminutive yet supremely athletic and explosive guard from Washington named Nate Robinson.
Befitting a player blessed with his quicks and scoring ability, the 5-foot-9 dynamo drove past and shot over plenty of helpless Pac-10 defenders. But it was his defiance of gravity that really caught my attention. Rather than being the one throwing the passes on alley-oops, he was the one receiving them. He soared in for putback dunks on a regular basis.
And there was substance to all that style. He was the best player on a series of Huskies teams that put an afterthought of a Pac-10 program back on the map, guiding them to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and a Sweet Sixteen berth during his final college season in 2005.
Fast forward a little less than a decade. Rather than slipping quietly into anonymity like so many college stars before and after him, Robinson has been nothing less than one of the most exciting — and more important, clutch — performers the 2013 NBA Playoffs have had to offer. And it’s not just because Robinson is back in his familiar No. 2 from his U-Dub days.
That the now-28-year-old Robinson is giving me this sense of déjà vu couldn’t make me happier.
If, like the majority of the NBA playoffs-watching population, you’re pulling for anyone but the Miami Heat, how satisfying was it to watch a 5-foot-9 guy steal home court advantage from them on Monday? And to do so for a beat-up, undermanned team no less (one that was admittedly exposed in a 115-78 rout in Game 2 on Wednesday)?
What’s more, Robinson has done so throughout the playoffs with the same joie de vivre he exhibited as a collegian. Granted, he’s not soaring over opponents a full foot taller than him for rim-rattling dunks like he did with the Huskies. But those same flashy crossovers, tough runners in the lane over wannabe shot-blockers and other high-degree-of-difficulty shots he first honed in Seattle are still there in spades.
Making it all the more dazzling to watch is when he’s doing it. Of the 27 points he scored in Chicago’s 93–86 Game 1 upset, 11 of them came in the fourth — including the Bulls’ last seven points of the game. Additionally, six of his game-high nine assists also came in the final period.
You’d think that Miami would have been prepared for the little guy. After all, he was even more deadly in Game 3 of the first round against the Brooklyn Nets, dropping 23 points in the fourth quarter to erase a 14-point lead en route to a triple OT win.
It’s the exact same mix of style (how he’s scoring) and substance (when he’s doing it) that allowed him to be a star in college. Why he’s only spent a small part of his eight-year NBA career doing the same is due to his identity as a player and a lack of opportunities when being such a player comes in handy.
At one point or another, whatever NBA team you follow (if you choose to follow one) has likely had an “instant offense” type of player. You know the type: A guard too undersized to start on a regular basis who comes off the bench and, without hesitation, shoots … and shoots … and shoots.
Players like that — Nick Van Exel, Eddie House and Daequan Cook, to name a few — are more than capable of carving out long careers, but typically don’t stick around with the same team for a long time. Perhaps it’s because they seek out opportunities to have a more prominent role with another team. Maybe it’s because making a long-term investment in these “lightning in a bottle” players is a dicey proposition; who knows if/when the shots they take will stop falling.
Whatever the reason, Robinson has been on a similar journeyman track, as the Bulls are his fifth stop in the past three seasons. With the exception of spending his first four-plus years in the NBA with the Knicks, he hasn’t been with a team long enough to carve out a long-term role.
Nor has he had ample opportunities on the game’s biggest possible stage to give his team a boost with his instant offense. 2013 marks just the third trip Robinson has taken to the NBA playoffs. Even before this year, he’s shown a penchant for hitting big shots when it mattered most, scoring 13 points in the Celtics’ Game 6, series-clinching victory over the Magic in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.
He’s back at it again three years later, only he’s even better this time, averaging 17.4 PPG on 48.8% shooting from the field and dishing out 4.0 APG. The onetime star at Washington is now the current star for a Bulls team that sorely needed one in Derrick Rose’s absence — so much so that LeBron James took it on himself prior to Game 2 to guard Robinson, fearful of him erupting again.
It’s funny how history can repeat itself long after its first occurrence, when people least expect it. The conversation of how to slow down Nate Robinson and prevent him from imposing his pint-sized-yet-forceful will on a game used to be confined to the annals of his collegiate heyday at Washington.
Yet here we are nearly a decade since Robinson last suited up for the Huskies, and it’s the topic du jour once again — only it’s an NBA playoff series that hangs in the balance.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Right Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports