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Bulls’ Robinson stands tall among his competition

Some of the greatest players in the history of the game applaud Robinson and suggest, especially in the evolution of the NBA, that players like Robinson, standing somewhere between 5-6 and his listed height of 5-9, can be more valuable than ever, writes Sam Smith.
Robinson’s 23-fourth quarter points and 12 straight to shock the Nets after they led by 14 with under three minutes left will long be discussed and admired as one of the all-time great NBA playoff performances.
(Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

Is Nate Robinson the future of the NBA?

That’s perhaps a bit of hyperbole, though after Robinson’s spectacular game and perhaps series saving performance for the Bulls in their Saturday triple overtime 142-134 win over the Brooklyn Nets there may not be enough celebration for the Bulls’ diminutive guard.

Robinson’s 23-fourth quarter points and 12 straight to shock the Nets after they led by 14 with under three minutes left will long be discussed and admired as one of the all-time great NBA playoff performances. And Robinson’s role with the Bulls may become even more vital heading into Game 5 in Brooklyn Monday with Kirk Hinrich out with a calf injury.

It could leave Robinson starting against All-Star Deron Williams with the Bulls ahead 3-1 in the series, though no assignment seems too much for Robinson anymore. And some of the greatest players in the history of the game, who also fought the stereotypes Robinson has faced, applaud Robinson and suggest, especially in the evolution of the NBA, that players like Robinson, standing somewhere between 5-6 and his listed height of 5-9, can be more valuable than ever.

“The way the game is played now is suited for the little man because of the speed of the game and open court play,” says Calvin Murphy, the Hall of Fame guard who was one of the first to overcome the stigma — perhaps more so prejudice — against small players. “That’s out the window. It’s about the quality of the player. It’s been overused. Years ago a coach would make a decision about size. But now it should be put to rest. I was successful, Nate Archibald was successful, Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues. It’s no longer about size. The more you talk about it the more it stays alive. It’s why I don’t like to talk about it. If you are a quality player and given a chance you can play.”

I did press Murphy and he graciously continued, though his competitive nature shows to this day.

“If a teammate outplays you for a position, that’s a different story,” added Murphy, who has been a Houston Rockets broadcaster and five times in his career averaged more than 20 in a season and as much as 25.6 in 1977-78. “Kids have their own role models today. Not because of size. It’s hard for me to go along with the story about size. Nate is a hell of a player because he is strong and has great legs and is being given a chance. It’s not about size; it’s about style. Nate’s been with a few teams and didn’t quite have the success. It’s more about the style (of play). The NBA runs in cycles. Whoever has success gets copied, follow the leaders. (Saturday) night you saw the Rockets come back going small (against Oklahoma City). Other teams are doing it (like Golden State).

“Years ago it upset me when people talked about size,” said Murphy, listed at 5-9 in his playing career and regarded as the smallest player in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. “So many players of (that) size didn’t get a chance in those days. But that stigma is done and chased away. Kids now 5-5, 5-6 dunk with ease. The average (or small) man has caught up in the game.”

Murphy is somewhat militant and defensive about the question of size given the way he struggled to become a high level pro in an era when the belief was players under six feet couldn’t succeed against the giants of the game, especially when Magic Johnson was a 6-9 point guard.

Murphy even still bristles about limited playing time in the 1981 Finals because he believed his coach felt he was too small to play against Boston, especially late in the series even after big performances before that, including a classic 42 points in Game 7 of the conference finals against the Spurs.

“No one could stop me but Del Harris,” Murphy said when I caught up with him Sunday, still demonstrating the pride that drives great performers. “I could get my shot because my man (guarding me) was too slow. The only way to stop me was bench me. How could you be too small to play? Look at what Tiny or Nate do.

“It’s a form of prejudice,” says Murphy, “of what people should be rather than what they are. Nate is having a great season and doing things because he is talented.”

Is Nate Robinson a groundbreaker?

Obviously, there have been many great so called little men in the game, many in the Hall of Fame like Murphy. But is the way the NBA changing these days opening the way for more players like Robinson? Even if he is somewhat of an exception given his uncanny athletic ability and toughness. The game is becoming more about scoring, more open and free flowing. Stephen Curry is perhaps the biggest star of the playoffs thus far and not much taller than Robinson. He is an uncanny shooter with a knack for finding space. Ty Lawson has been Denver’s scoring star. Then there’s go to guys like Memphis’ Mike Conley and the Spurs’ Tony Parker.

Gone are the days of the towering centers as the Heat is the favorites to win the NBA title without even playing a center. Power forwards often are not powerful anymore as they are camped outside the three-point line as “stretch fours.” No more handing checking to slow down guards. There is barely any contact allowed above the free throw line. You don’t get knocked down coming into the lane anymore just for being there.

“Bigger players can’t take a forearm and knock you down because they feel like,” said Isiah Thomas, whom many regard as the best ever player in the so-called small range. “They’d say you aren’t supposed to be in there because you are too small.

“With the change of the rules in the NBA it’s leveled the playing field in terms of small guys playing,” says Thomas, now a commentator for NBA TV. “The rules always favored the taller, bigger guys, stronger players. But look at that performance by Nate. It was exciting. Not only exciting but inspiring. Everyone watching that game could see a little bit of themselves in Nate. An undersized, small guy against the odds getting knocked down by Gerald Wallace (bruising blind side screen early in the fourth quarter with the Bulls trailing by eight). Standing up and getting back up. It was great. And then Nate making big shots, getting into the lane for floaters and not having to worry about being punished for no reason.”

Now, Robinson is not just any guy. Obviously, being that small there are basketball issues like matchups. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has dealt with them effectively as he had Robinson defending a non scorer late in Gerald Wallace when C.J. Watson was out. Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler and Hinrich on the scoring backcourt players.

It was a variation on the old Don Nelson theme of putting a smaller player or weak defender on a big man who doesn’t score and tempting the opponent to vary from its plan to take advantage of a matchup, assuming it can with a player unaccustomed to scoring.

It worked well for the Bulls in Game 4 as the Nets’ offense mostly was quiet late. It also suggests perhaps an increasing role around the NBA for players like Robinson who can create their own shots and provide scoring in an increasingly offensive game. Defense wins championships. Except when it doesn’t.

It would seem you also can win by scoring more points. Yes, it’s supposedly been tried by the Nuggets of the 1980’s and Suns of the 2000’s without success. Those were entertaining teams that often went far in the playoffs. And it’s not like the Showtime Lakers were a defensive juggernaut.

Now there are so few centers — seven-footer Kevin Durant is not playing point guard — that maybe it’s time to rethink some of not how to win the game but who else can be a major contributor.

Robinson has shown this season a special ability to score and compromise the defense. And it’s hardly like all those 6-5 guards are such great defenders.

Who and where are the next Nate Robinsons?

Thomas when he was Knicks general manager made a draft day deal to acquire Robinson among several other low round draft successes, like David Lee 30th and when he was in Toronto Tracy McGrady ninth and rookie of the year Damon Stoudemire seventh, the latter a small guard Thomas selected over second guessing he should take Ed O’Bannon or Bryant Reeves.

“He’s the most unique player in the NBA because of his size and athleticism,” said Thomas Sunday from the NBA-TV studios. “He’s just as great an athlete as LeBron James. Just not as tall. His ability to score the basketball is I’d say way above average of most of the point guards playing today. I think Thibodeau has done a great job getting him to understand time and tempo and score a lot better. His defense is getting better. His growth and maturation have been dynamic. I see an extremely tough kid with an understanding of the game, a really smart basketball player.

“It’s hard to score 20 points in the league,” says Thomas. “I don’t care who you are. Nate’s an athletic freak. When he came to the (Knicks draft) workout he not only shot right handed around the world (from points around the perimeter). But then he shot left handed from all the same spots and was just as good. He’s got one of these freakish motors like (Michael) Jordan. Michael can play 36 holes of golf and then play a game. Nate’s like that. Like in that slam dunk contest he won. He won like on his 16th try and then went between his legs in the air and dunked it. Most guys on their 16th try couldn’t even touch the rim. He’s hard to guard and exciting to watch.”

And he really doesn’t know he’s small.

“I never felt small,” says Murphy. “I only felt small when the coach didn’t play me and was what he wanted you to be. “The best thing that happened to me is playing for a great coach in Alex Hannum (in San Diego). He never discussed size. He always said if your teammates couldn’t out play you it was your job. It was matchups. I matched up with Pistol Pete, Walt Frazier, Earl the Pearl. They were bigger, but I used my speed to combat them. If someone beats you, that’s something else. Then someone else plays.

“Nate is having a great season because of the things he’s doing,” emphasized Murphy. “That’s what matters. Who you are and what you can do. He’s not a fluke.”

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