Chicago Bulls' Nate Robinson (2) reacts after scoring against the Milwaukee Bucks during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Updated: May 8, 2013 10:10AM
MIAMI—Nate Robinson couldn’t talk Tuesday, the 10 stitches in his upper lip making it too painful for Robinson to move his mouth.
The irony was front and center since the diminutive Chicago Bulls guard loves the sound of his voice almost as much as he does taking shots, scoring points, irritating opponents and frustrating his coach.
“Nate don’t ever want to be quiet,” Bulls guard-forward Jimmy Butler said. “When he doesn’t want to talk to the media, that’s a first.”
Robinson wasn’t available to news reporters a day after the Bulls defeated the Miami Heat 93-86 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 2 here is scheduled for Wednesday (6 p.m. TNT).
Generously listed at 5-9, Robinson has been at the center of Chicago’s seven-game series win against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round and its stunner in Miami.
And yet, Robinson hasn’t made people forget Derrick Rose. On the contrary, the controversy about the former MVP’s return from ACL surgery continues to rage even as Robinson puts up Rose-like numbers. He had a game-high in points (27) and assists (nine) against the Heat, and scored Chicago’s final seven points during a 10-0 run that finished off the victory.
“Remember, this isn’t anything new,” his college coach at Washington, Lorenzo Romar, told USA TODAY Sports. “He has scored 50 points in a game before. The bigger the stage, the taller he gets.”
Worn down by minutes, and struggling with injuries, the Bulls endure and excel based on coach Tom Thibodeau’s “Next Man Up” philosophy. If a player is in the game, Thibodeau expects the same from him as who he replaced.
With guard Kirk Hinrich (bruised left calf) and Luol Deng (illness) out, Robinson has done just that, supplying the scoring and leadership.
“He’s about as confident as they come, and that’s the thing that makes him good,” Thibodeau said. “If he misses a shot, he has a very short memory. He always thinks he’s hot.”
And Robinson was hot Monday, which made getting him back on the court with the stitched-up lip crucial.
Robinson smashed his lip on the floor diving for a loose ball along with LeBron James before halftime. No matter to Thibodeau. “He got knocked around a little bit, a couple stitches. It’s all good. Get out there and get it done,” was the coach’s hardline declaration.
Robisnon has been getting it done throughout the playoffs, starting with Chicago’s 142-134 triple overtime victory against the Nets on April 27. Robinson had 34 points, including 12 during the Bulls’ 14-0 run in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter to force overtime. The Bulls took a 3-1 series lead.
“Coach (Thibodeau) always harps on winning your matchup, and we try to go out there individually and do that and conquer that as a team,” Robinson said late Monday night. “We are doing a great job.”
Robinson is averaging 18.3 points in the playoffs, and Hall of Famer and former Houston Rockets guard Calvin Murphy is the only player 5-9 or shorter to average more points in a playoff season, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Robinson has excelled in the fourth quarter of the playoffs, leading all players in fourth-quarter scoring, averaging 8.3 points, according to NBA.com. That’s more than Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and James
“Nate is a scorer,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said Tuesday. “We’ve got to do a better job of contesting his shots. Nate’s going to score the basketball because he’s going to shoot. We can’t worry about that. It’s other things we have to worry about more so than Nate.”
Romar recalls going to a Pac-10 Media Day with Robinson and flipping through the media guide. They stopped at the team photo.
“Obviously, he was really small next to the other guys,” Romar said. “He looks at me, says, ‘Coach, look at how small I am!’ He was joking, but it was like the first time he’d realized that. It was a microcosm of how he thinks.”
Robinson, who played one season of football for the Huskies as a cornerback, is a fearless shooter who forgets his last shot. Miami forward Chris Bosh blocked a layup attempt by Robinson in the third quarter, but that did not stop Robinson from scoring on a layup with 45.5 seconds left, giving the Bulls a 90-86 lead.
“He’s never afraid. He’ll step in a big situation,” Thibodeau said. “He has the courage to take and make.”
The Robinson-Thibodeau pairing on the surface seems incongruent -- the running-and-gunning Robinson with the disciplined Thibodeau.
But the two have a history and have managed to coexist. Robinson played for Boston when Thibodeau was an assistant for Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Their mutual respect was on display after Robinson’s triple-overtime exploits against Brooklyn.
“He’s a character now,” said Thibodeau, breaking into the closest thing he will get to a smile at this time of the year. “I had a good understanding of who he is from my experience with him in Boston. You’ve got to take the whole package, and the good outweighs the bad.”
Said Robinson: “Everybody knows coach is a drill sergeant. But he has a heart, somewhere in there. â(euro) ⅛ I tease coach a lot. It seems every shot I shoot, he’s mad, regardless.”
Thibodeau isn’t upset with many shots these days, with Robinson shooting 50.4 percent from the field during the playoffs. But when Robinson does challenge his coach, Thibodeau, like Romar years ago, understand that’s just how Robinson plays.
“Nate is at his best when he’s almost out of control,” Romar said. “If you give him a lot of rules, he’s a little bit restricted.”
While it looks like the three-time slam dunk champion has found a home in Chicago, nothing is guaranteed. His contract wasn’t even guaranteed when the season started. Robinson signed a one-year, veteran’s minimum contract for $1.1 million in July and became fully guaranteed when he was with team after Jan. 1.
He is a free agent after this season, and since his rookie deal with New York Knicks expired in 2010, he has been with four teams.
“I’m just a fierce competitor. I hate to lose. I love to win,” Robinson said.
In that sense, Robinson lets his game do the talking.