Nate Robinson was not supposed to be in this position.
When the diminutive guard signed with the Chicago Bulls last summer, his contract wasn't even guaranteed for the whole season. Robinson was brought in for insurance, because star guard Derrick Rose was expected to miss most of the season after recovering from knee surgery. It's safe to assume that the Bulls were not expecting Robinson to be a key contributor, much less a starter, for the team in the playoffs.
Yet, lo and behold, Robinson is the unlikely reason that the Bulls will take a 3-2 series lead over the Brooklyn Nets into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals series.
Robinson came off the bench in Game 5 and did nothing but pour in 23 fourth-quarter points, including 12 straight down the stretch, to lead the Bulls on a wild and potentially season-saving comeback win. Only Michael Jordan had scored more points in a single quarter of a playoff game for Chicago.
"Nate's one of those guys who can change a game," Brooklyn coach P.J. Carlesimo said after the game. "Whether you want to call him an X-factor or whatever, there's nights when he gets it going that he's very, very difficult to defend."
Robinson, once known for his stature-defying dunks (listed at 5-foot-9, he is a three-time NBA Slam Dunk contest winner), has established himself as an offensive spark plug. He makes up for his questionable decisions -- ill-timed shots -- with bursts of scoring rarely seen from players his size.
The Seattle native also provides loads of energy, and he fits in well on a Chicago team known for toughness. After receiving a technical foul for tussling with Brooklyn's C.J. Watson early in Game 4, Robinson found himself on the wrong end of a hard screen by forward Gerald Wallace. True to his reputation, and his past experience as a collegiate football player, Robinson shook off the screen and went on a scoring rampage.
Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau, who worked with Robinson when both were in Boston, is very familiar with the ups-and-downs of the 28-year-old.
"He's a character," Thibodeau said. "You got to take the whole package. The good outweighs the bad."
Thanks to his incredible Game 4 performance, as well as an injury to starting point guard Kirk Hinrich, Robinson got the nod in Game 5. In the first playoff start of his career Robinson played admirably, tallying 20 points and eight assists, but he ultimately couldn't contain the larger, stronger Deron Williams.
With Hinrich doubtful for Thursday's Game 6, Robinson may be called upon again. The Bulls will hope that "Good Nate" shows up, but in reality, no one knows how he'll respond.
"I always think I'm on fire," Robinson said after Game 5. "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. 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 that you can't miss."