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Monday, December 20, 2010
Nate has found his niche

By Chris Forsberg
ESPNBoston.com

When Nate Robinson is given film cuts from the Boston Celtics' win Sunday over the Indiana Pacers, coaches should provide a single eight-second clip playing on an endless loop: A fourth-quarter hustle play that not only produced a key late-game basket but embodied everything the Celtics want out of Robinson.

With Boston clinging to a six-point lead with less than five minutes to play, an offensive series broke down and -- with all five Celtics essentially standing around -- Kevin Garnett fired a 19-footer that rattled out of the rim. Boston doesn't put a premium on offensive rebounding, and Garnett and three others who were 20-plus feet from the basket immediately started moving backward to get set on defense.

Nate Robinson
Nate Robinson helped push the Celtics over the hump late in the fourth quarter against the Pacers on Sunday.

But Robinson saw an opening and did what he does best. He didn't overthink the play. He crashed from the baseline in front of the Pacers' bench, tipped the ball away from Darren Collison, then did the same with Danny Granger before sprawling out over the Indiana forward to corral the ball while tumbling to the floor.

Robinson then fed Paul Pierce from the seat of his pants, and the ball quickly swung to Ray Allen, who got his defender off his feet before driving and banking home an 9-footer for an eight-point lead with 4:32 to go. It proved to be a pivotal bucket in a 99-88 triumph.

"It's just one of those plays where I'm running and never giving up on the ball, no matter what," Robinson said. "I wanted the ball, I wanted that rebound."

That's exactly the type of effort the Celtics have wanted out of Robinson since he arrived in Boston in a five-player swap that sent Eddie House, Bill Walker and J.R. Giddens to the New York Knicks at the trade deadline last season.

Robinson got tossed into a backup role at point guard and never quite acclimated last season. He seemed conflicted between when to distribute (which he tried to do too frequently) and when to let his natural scoring abilities take over. Having to learn a bulky playbook exacerbated matters and, when his defense sagged, Robinson tumbled to the end of the bench, only re-emerging during the final eight playoff games (something that might have paved the way for his return to Boston this season).

But in bringing back the frenetic guard, coach Doc Rivers stressed to Robinson that he needed to be what he was in the playoffs -- an energy player emphasizing his intensity rather than being slowed by trying to process each situation.

Over the summer, Robinson admitted he overthought the game at times and needed to be himself. Plays like the one on Sunday show what Robinson is capable of when his natural talent takes over.

While Robinson is still searching for that balance with the reserve unit, his contributions this season cannot be understated, especially in the six games he's started in place of nicked-up point guard Rajon Rondo.

As a starter, Robinson is averaging 16.3 points, 4.8 assists and 2.8 rebounds over 33.3 minutes per contest in six games (well above his season averages of 8.3 points, 2.4 assists, 1.5 rebounds over 18.5 minutes per game). What's more, Robinson is shooting 54.2 percent from the floor as a starter, including 48.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc (by comparison, he's shooting 43 percent overall this season, including 35.9 percent from downtown).

So what gives? Well, certainly there's something to be said for playing with more talented players (four future Hall of Famers, in fact). But Robinson is also aided by the fact that Pierce often runs the offense with the first unit, keeping Robinson in the off-guard role he prefers and in which he thrives.

Robinson scored a team-high 18 points Sunday on 7-of-15 shooting over a Rondo-like 42:32.

"[Pierce] does what Delonte [West] was doing [with the second unit] in some ways. Nate doesn't have to be the full-time ball handler," Rivers said, pointing to how Robinson shined in the preseason with West sharing the floor on the second unit.

"Nate's a good basketball player, he's been terrific for us. He's not a pure point guard; he's a guard. So there are things he can see, and there are things he can't see. We try to keep him out of those positions."

And by staying in more familiar positions, Robinson is thriving. Especially with the first unit. Even he admits he's sometimes awestruck by the talent around him.

"It's kind of cool," Robinson said. "At times, I'm like, 'Wow.' That's something that -- all the pictures and all that -- I'll save that for my kids. It's something that I can enjoy as I get older. It's pretty cool, even when Rondo is out there, he's going to be a Hall of Famer. It's just a blessing."

Playing with the first unit is also rebuilding Robinson's confidence, which might have eroded a bit during his struggles to adapt last season.

"You have to have confidence," Robinson said. "When I shoot the ball, I feel like I can make every shot. I feed that into my brain every day -- night in, night out. That's how I play the game. I feel like I can't be stopped and I have to keep that mentality, always be aggressive, on offense and defense.

"It's something that I think guys should think more about themselves: That nobody can stop me, no matter what."

Indeed, Robinson is proving that the only person that can contain him is himself.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.