With 7 minutes 25 seconds left in the game of Nate Robinson's life Saturday at the United Center, Nets forward Gerald Wallace set a backcourt screen that created a collision loud enough to make NFL draft highlights too.
Robinson, a muscular 5-foot-9, 180-pound cornerback disguised as an NBA player, ran full-speed into Wallace's chest with his left shoulder before hitting the deck — and staying there long enough to gather his resolve.
"I started out as a kid playing football so those plays get you fired up,'' Robinson said. "What a great pick. The ref said it was clean. It woke me up.''
- Bio | E-mail | Recent columns
- Video: David Haugh breaks down Bulls' victory, state of series
- Photos: Bulls vs. Nets, Game 4
- Video: Noah on Robinson's big fourth quarter
- Video: Hinrich on 'grueling' triple-OT victory
- Chicago Bulls
- Tom Thibodeau
See more topics »
United Center, 1901 West Madison Street, Chicago, IL 60612, USA
Slowly, Robinson rose off the ground. Steadily, he then refused to let the Bulls stay down with a Jordanesque performance that produced one of the more memorable fourth quarters in team history.
"My team needed a lift,'' Robinson said. "I was just playing with a bunch of energy and that's when I'm at my best or get in a zone, you can say.''
You can say the Nates beat the Nets 142-134 in triple overtime to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the first-round series.
One day before the anniversary of Derrick Rose's knee injury, Robinson reminded Chicago what it looks like when a Bulls point guard imposes his will on an opponent.
Robinson came off the bench to score 34 points in 28-plus minutes, a record for Bulls reserves. He scored 23 points in the fourth quarter, one point shy of Michael Jordan's franchise record of 24.
"I tease my teammates a lot when we shoot and tell (Richard Hamilton) I always think I'm on fire,'' Robinson said. "That way in a game I can play with a lot of confidence. You have to allow yourself to feel like you can't miss.''
During a stretch of 12 straight points that helped wipe out a 109-95 lead with 3 minutes 48 seconds left, Robinson didn't. What flipped Robinson's switch on?
He had a mere nine points when he collided with Wallace's pick and his day threatened to be defined by a silly first-half scuffle with Nets guard C.J. Watson that spilled onto the scorer's table. The Nets had built a lead that apparently looked insurmountable to everybody not on the Bulls payroll when Robinson's teammate Taj Gibson couldn't help but notice fans trying to beat traffic.
"It was funny to see people leaving,'' Gibson said. "They didn't know we had a guy like Nate Robinson. He gave us life.''
In doing so, Robinson also gave the Nets season a death sentence. Sometimes, he still gives coach Tom Thibodeau the yips.
Thibodeau lobbied hard to add the streaky scorer last summer because he knew from their time together in Boston that Robinson was capable of offensive spurts this special. But knowing Robinson didn't always make him any easier to tolerate during a season the Bulls had no choice but to ride Robinson's inconsistency.
"I tease Coach a lot because it seems like every shot I shoot he's mad,'' Robinson said.
To Robinson, there are no shots considered bad ones as long as he is the one taking them. It also can complicate matters for a coach that there are AM radio stations offering less talk than Robinson. But days like Saturday make it worth every groan for Thibodeau.
"He's a character but the good outweighs the bad,'' Thibodeau said. "He hit big shot after big shot. That's what makes him so valuable.''
So does the court awareness seldom mentioned as one of Robinson's strengths. In the midst of the Bulls' rally, Robinson approached Thibodeau with some advice.
"I just told him, 'Don't call a play for me. Just let the ball find me and run the regular offense,''' Robinson said. "It worked.''
To overcome a 14-point deficit in the playoffs, the Bulls never stopped working.
Kirk Hinrich turned back the clock to the "Baby Bulls'' days with 18 points in 60 minutes and relentless defense on Nets guard Deron Williams, who was outplayed by Robinson. Joakim Noah gutted out 15 points and 13 rebounds in his most fluid playoff showing yet. Carlos Boozer came through with 21 points and Jimmy Butler carried the Bulls early with offense and late with defense like his last-second block of Wallace's tip-in. Gibson hit double figures. When Nazr Mohammed scored a clutch putback with 19 seconds left in the third overtime, it illustrated the depth of this Bulls team.
Nobody dug deeper than Robinson, who probably considered the day's most remarkable sight Thibodeau exiting the locker room wearing a big smile he helped put there.
"Everybody knows coach is a drill sergeant but he has a heart somewhere in there,'' Robinson said.
The Bulls do too, and it was easy to see Saturday when it mattered most.