“Nate is not in our rotation right now, but he’ll win a playoff game for us. There will be a game where we’re flat, and we’re going to need somebody to come in and make something happen, and Nate will do that. And I told him that yesterday. I told him there will be a game that he’s going to win us. He’s going to win us a playoff game.”
That was Doc Rivers, nearly two months ago, after the Celtics’ coach had just watched Nate Robinson score 11 points in 26 seconds in a home loss to the Washington Wizards in a game near the end of the regular season.
Robinson, who arrived in Boston on Feb. 18 as part of a five-player trade with the New York Knicks, had spent much of his season on the bench, watching as the veterans ahead of him on the Celtics’ depth chart carried the team into the playoffs. He played only bits and pieces of games for the final two months of the regular season and hardly at all in the playoffs.
But after months of irrelevance, Robinson came through for the Celtics in their biggest game of the season, helping them close things out in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Orlando Magic. When we least expected it, the little man came up big.
Perhaps Doc was right.
“During the playoffs, at every single practice, I made a point of going over to him, telling him to stay engaged,” Rivers said Friday night. “At some point you’re going to win a game for us. I can’t tell you when. I can’t tell you when you’re going to play. I can’t tell you if you’re going to play, on what night at least, but at some point you’re going to win a game for us.”
Finally, it happened. Robinson came off the bench in the second quarter with Rajon Rondo ailing, and he took the floor with a bang. It was another trademark Robinson scoring burst — 13 points in just over five minutes, propelling the Celtics to a Game 6 win.
But for Rivers, it wasn’t Friday night that things finally clicked for Robinson. It had happened two nights prior.
“It happened last game,” the coach said. “Not this game. He gave me the confidence when he came into Game 5, even though we played awful, that he had bought into our defensive system, and that he was able to run a couple sets that we thought would be effective against them.”
It took a while, but Robinson got his moment.
“It was a great opportunity,” Robinson said Friday night. “I thank God, I thank Doc, the fans for giving me so much energy and my teammates for believing. They always told me be ready, be ready you never know. Today was that day.”
“I thought it was huge for him,” said his captain, Paul Pierce. “He hasn’t played a lot of basketball in the playoffs — he kind of filled out the rotation. But my hat’s off to him. Usually young players kind of mentally fall out of it when they don’t play. They just go through the motions and practice, really not into it because they’re worried about their time. That’s normal for a young player.
But he kept his poise. He came into practice, got his work in, shot the ball, and did whatever he had to do to stay ready. Tonight his number was called, and that just shows his true professionalism being ready.”
The beauty of this Celtic team is that in any given game, you just never know who will step up. It’s a different guy each night, and in the biggest night of the season, it was Nate Robinson.