CHICAGO – The Bulls never truly know which version of guard Nate Robinson they are getting any given game.
But Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets, Good Nate was on display at the United Center when the Bulls needed him most. Pull-up jumpers, 3-pointers and a one-handed bank shot from the 3-point line, it didn’t matter where he shot the ball. The 5-foot-9 ball of energy single-handedly willed the Bulls’ fourth-quarter comeback with a performance reminiscent of Michael Jordan.
Robinson’s 23 points in the fourth quarter of the Bulls’ 142-134 triple overtime win against the Nets were the second most in franchise playoff history, trailing only Jordan’s 24 points in the fourth against Philadelphia in 1990. Robinson’s heroics helped the Bulls take a 3-1 series lead.
“I always think I’m on fire, 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,” Robinson said. “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 and you can’t miss.”
Robinson’s confidence rubbed off on his teammates during the Bulls’ run in which they outscored the Nets 16-2 in the final 3:45.
Although Robinson, who finished with a game-high 34 points off the bench, ripped off a 12-0 run on his own, the Bulls came together defensively and held Brooklyn to 0 for 5 from the field to force overtime. Teammate Nazr Mohammed called Robinson’s effort one of the best second-half performances in playoff history.
“He’s a shot maker ,and we really needed him,” Mohammed said. “This win is all his. We were pretty much out of the game when Nate willed us through offensively and everyone kind of followed his lead and stepped up, too.”
The Bulls’ defense has been ranked among the league leaders since Tom Thibodeau took over as coach. But their ability to consistently rely on the offense has been a missing component this season, largely because of the absence of Derrick Rose, who watched the game from the bench on Saturday. Robinson, for all his irrational confidence, represents exactly what the Bulls needed against the Nets and moving forward in the playoffs should they win one of the next three games against Brooklyn. The Bulls needed to prove to themselves – while sending a statement to the rest of the league – they’re capable of winning games when they have a shaky defensive effort.
“He’s so underrated, especially in the fourth quarter, that’s his time to shine,” forward Taj Gibson said. “He could go cold the first three quarters and just light up the fourth.”
Thibodeau praised Robinson as much as a defensive-minded coach would, highlighting Robinson’s ability to find a rhythm most shooters dream of. Yet the Bulls’ defensive issues were never far from his mind and the ugly numbers stared back at him as Thibodeau glanced at the box score while seated at the podium after the Bulls’ win.
Brooklyn shot 49.5 percent from the field and made nine 3-pointers while grabbing 47 rebounds, including 12 on the offensive glass. Even after the remarkable comeback win, Thibodeau and the Bulls lamented a defensive effort that nearly cost them the game. Their most glaring mistake came on Joe Johnson’s tying runner in the lane as time expired to send the game to double overtime.
However, the Bulls’ mental toughness, born out of a season filled with adversity, and the will to win even left their toughest critic encouraged that they are only one win away from keeping their season alive.
“Everybody knows coach is a drill sergeant, but he has a heart somewhere in there, I know he does,” Robinson said of Thibodeau. “He smiles every blue moon, and it’s good to see.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the Bulls for Shaw Media. Write to her at email@example.com.