I like 2010 so far.
Before tonight’s game I quoted U2 in making the point that, while 2010 could finally be the year that brought wholesale change to New York Knicks basketball, the year would start off with exactly the same team that was fighting for relevance and a low-end berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs. It took only nine minutes for me to be proven wrong, as Mike D’Antoni lifted his monthlong embargo on Nate Robinson’s minutes and inserted the diminutive pinball of a combo guard into the lineup. Robinson immediately made his presence felt with a tip-in here, a drive-and-kick there, and everywhere a sparkplug for a team that had looked decidedly flat to start its first game of the new year.
By halftime Nate had an efficient 14, raising new questions in the announcers’ booth and on the commenters’ board about where he would now stand in the Knicks rotation, what role the future held in store for an athletically gifted player that had seemingly clashed with his third coach in three tries. It felt like a fun little story that would have some legs and add some intrigue to the wintry dog days of the NBA season. Certainly, it seemed like the most interesting angle for what was shaping up to be an otherwise hum-drum loss for the Knicks, who were outclassed for three quarters by a better team whose stars were scoring with ease while the Knicks three primary offensive weapons were either mired in slumps or, in Gallo’s case, borderline invisible.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the finish line. The smallest man on the court did what we all knew he could do, what even those among us (myself included) who have agreed with his benching have always conceded even as a punctuation to our criticism of his flaws. Dude can put points on the board. And dude did.
If you haven’t seen the fourth quarter and overtime, I suggest trying to find video footage. For me to try to put prose to a walkthrough would be both unfulfilling and redundant; I would surely wear out my copy and paste buttons while continuously highlighting the words “And then Nate beat his man off the dribble for an uncontested layup.” But it’s worth mentioning that he finished with 41 points (on 18/24 shooting), 8 assists, and 6 rebounds, that he eschewed any opportunity to show up the coach who had sidelined him in postgame interviews, that he had the look of a player who has gone through a difficult experience and come out the stronger for it.
There’s no talking about the Nate we saw tonight without talking about the Nate we’ve seen for the last month. The last decade of Knicks basketball has seen more than its fair share of benchings, often of high profile, high paid pseudo-stars whose playing time has succumbed to injury, malconditioning, attitude, or general incompetence. We’ve seen these players every night on the bench, and we can remember their faces: from the brooding Stephon Marbury, to the disinterested Jerome James, to the frustrated Eddy Curry. And then there’s the Nate of December 2009, interacting with teammates, on his feet for every important moment, bounding onto the court to congratulate teammates after big plays. Without that Nate, who has looked disappointment and frustration in the face and remained a committed member of the team, we don’t get this Nate, who took exactly one shot to shake off a month of rust and propelled a generally hapless group (outside of a spectacular Wilson Chandler) to one of the year’s most rousing, most improbable victories.
There was no Knick who deserved to own a night more than Nate Robinson, and Nate Robinson owned the first night of the new year. After a decade where the Knicks moved so far backwards, from Eastern Conference Champion, to perennial playoff team, to fringe lottery team, to the league’s cellar, a new decade began tonight. And it began with a player who had every excuse to give in to the pouting and buck-passing that has plagued 10 years of Knicks basketball refusing to do so, quite literally standing up and winning the game.
Where this goes, who knows. We’ve seen explosions from Nate before and we’ve seen the inconsistency that can follow. But after a decade that saw some of the worst lows in franchise history, we start a new one with one of the most memorable Knicks games in a long time. And we have Nate to thank.
I’ll leave you with a comparison of two great offensive performances to close out basketball games. The timestamp indicates time remaining before the end of the game in question; if the game went into overtime, like tonight’s did,then 5 minutes left in the fourth quarter is indicated as 10 minutes remaining and so forth. This should do a better job of paying tribute to Nate’s push to the finish than I could.
10:07 Player A makes running jumper (1/1, 2 points)
8:33 Player A misses three pointer (1/2, 2 points)
7:02 Player A makes 19-foot jumper (2/3, 4 points)
6:37 Player A makes driving layup, misses free throw (3/4, 6 points)
5:38 Player A makes game-tying layup (4/5, 8 points)
5:11 Player A makes game-tying layup (5/6, 10 points)
4:13 Player A misses 19-foot jumper (5/7, 10 points)
3:56 Player A makes go-ahead driving layup, misses free throw (6/8, 12 points)
3:26 Player A makes go-ahead driving layup (7/9, 14 points)
2:09 Player A makes go-ahead driving layup, makes free throw (8/10, 17 points)
1:32 Player A makes three-point jumper (9/11, 20 points)
0:43 Player A makes one of two free throws (9/11, 21 points)
Total: 21 points in the last 11 minutes on 6 layups, 2 free throws, 2 two-point jumpers, and 1 three pointer.
10:31 Player B makes go-ahead driving dunk (1/1, 2 points)
10:09 Player B makes game-tying driving dunk (2/2, 4 points)
9:47 Player B makes two of two go-ahead free throws (2/2, 6 points)
8:31 Player B makes game-tying dunk (3/3, 8 points)
7:54 Player B makes one of two game-tying free throws (3/3, 9 points)
7:01 Player B misses jumper (3/4, 9 points)
6:16 Player B makes two of two go-ahead free throws (3/4, 11 points)
5:33 Player B makes 20-foot jumper (4/5, 13 points)
5:07 Player B misses 22-foot jumper (4/6, 13 points)
4:31 Player B makes go-ahead 19-foot two point shot (5/7, 15 points)
1:51 Player B makes game-tying 19-foot jumper (6/8, 17 points)
1:14 Player B makes game-tying 25-foot three pointer (7/9, 20 points)
0:02 Player B makes game-winning driving layup (8/10, 22 points)
Total: 22 points in the last 11 minutes on 3 dunks, 1 layup, 5 free throws, 3 two-point jumpers, and 1 three pointer.
Player A, Nate Robinson, in his 41-point performance tonight against Atlanta.
Player B, LeBron James, in his 48-point performance in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals against Detroit.
Happy New Year.