Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NBA [Print without images]

Saturday, April 27, 2013
The little engine that could

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Late in this hard-fought playoff game, with the Chicago Bulls on his back and Tom Thibodeau's breath on his neck, Nate Robinson couldn't cool down.

If you've ever wondered what goes on between Robinson's ears when he plays his special brand of basketball, just think of the announcer's voice on "NBA Jam."

"I always think I'm on fire," he said after scoring 34 points in the Bulls' wild 142-134, triple-overtime victory over the Brooklyn Nets. "Like the old school game, 'NBA Jam,' you make a couple and the rim's on fire and when you shoot the ball, the ball's on fire. I feel like that at times. Well, all the time. When I'm in the game, I play with a lot of confidence and you kind of got to lie to yourself that you can't miss."

There's a reason Robinson's teammates love him. The 5-foot-something scorer is a football player in a GapKids body. After watching this game, thousands of Chicago kids want to grow down to be just like him.

"Nathaniel," Joakim Noah said after the game, shaking his head.

"He can go cold the first three quarters and just light up the fourth," Taj Gibson said.

Thanks to Robinson, signed as a replacement for John Lucas III in the Bulls' post-Derrick Rose injury bargain shopping spree this past summer, the Bulls are up 3-1 and return to Brooklyn on Monday with a chance to close out the series.

This wasn't a typical Bulls game -- the Nets shot 57.1 percent in regulation and 49.5 percent for the game -- but Robinson isn't a typical player.

Nate Robinson
The Bulls' Nate Robinson goes to the basket past the Nets' Reggie Evans and C.J. Watson.

After not doing much in the first half except nearly starting a fight with C.J. Watson, and playing just 1:12 in the Bulls' pitiful third quarter, Robinson dominated in the fourth and hit a huge shot in the first overtime.

He fouled out in the second overtime and played "just" 28 minutes, 32 seconds, or 31:04 fewer minutes than starting point guard Kirk Hinrich.

It was an economical game, just 23 shots, for a volume shooter. Robinson scored 23 points on 11-for-16 shooting in the fourth, including a personal 12-0 run that took 1:42 and cut a 14-point deficit to two. A 3-pointer, a layup, a jumper, three free throws, a jumper.

And, oh yeah, on the next play he found Carlos Boozer for a tying score. Later, Robinson nearly won the game in the first overtime with a running 23-foot kiss off the glass with two seconds left.

"It was big shot after big shot, but that's what he does," Thibodeau said. "That's what makes him so valuable. It doesn't take him much to get going and when he gets going, he can go on a big run."

Robinson said Thibodeau often lets his players dictate the action when they're hot and this time was no different.

"You know, it's kind of cool because coach kind of asks us what we want to run when we're hot, what plays," he said. "I told him not to call a play for me, just let the ball find me and we just run the regular offense we'd been running and it worked."

Of course, Robinson is the guy bringing up the ball and shooting every time, so that's kind of funny to say he "lets the ball find" him, but hey, whatever works. It's Nate's world, I'm just here to document it.

You might think Robinson's excesses would drive Thibodeau crazy, and trust me, they do, but Thibodeau is a realist and with no guarantee of when Rose would return, the live wire coach recruited the live wire scorer because he knew he'd need points in situations like this one.

After the game, Thibodeau amiably called Robinson a "character," though Robinson's teammates would probably say it takes one to know one.

"I tease coach a lot, because it seems like every shot I shoot, he's mad regardless," Robinson said, adding, "Everybody knows coach is a drill sergeant, but he has a heart somewhere in there. I know he does. He smiles every blue moon and it's good to see."

Robinson's heroics were the story of the game that never wanted to end, but the Bulls got healthy contributions from their top eight players, even if they weren't all healthy. Joakim Noah went way over his minutes limit, playing 38:43 before fouling out with 15 points and 13 rebounds on a bad foot. When asked if Thibodeau inquired about his well-being during the game, Noah chuckled. But he seemingly got better as the game wore on and adrenaline carried him.

"He's doing it on will," Thibodeau said. "He hasn't practiced, but he's feeling a little better. He was actually in the practice facility last night shooting. That's usually a good sign. Haven't seen that in a while."

Nazr Mohammed led the Bulls in scoring in the third overtime with four points. Each playing more than 50 minutes, Carlos Boozer had 21 points and eight rebounds and Luol Deng had 15 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

The starting backcourt of Hinrich and Jimmy Butler combined to hit 10 of 11 shots in the first half and finished with 34 total points. Butler had a game-saving blocked shot at the end of regulation.

Hinrich was fantastic again, adding 14 assists to his hot shooting start. But he paid the price. After 60 minutes, he was walking worse than Morley Safer.

"Unbelievable," Thibodeau said of Hinrich. "He got one of the toughest covers in the league with Deron Williams. He's in constant motion. (Hinrich) is getting hit with a hundred screens, minimum. He gets around them, over them, through them. More importantly, the way he runs the team. Everyone gets in rhythm, he sets the tone on the ball with his defense."

The Bulls just have to hope Hinrich can play in Game 5 on Monday. If not, they always have Robinson. I hear he's ready to start shooting.