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“Stay engaged. 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.” – Doc Rivers to Nate Robinson
The look on Doc Rivers’ face as Rajon Rondo writhed on the ground in pain in the opening quarter of game six against the Orlando Magic belied such confidence in backup point guard Nate Robinson.
Did Rivers even believe this utterance himself? Did Rivers truly believe that the little, and little used, Robinson would affect a playoff game?
Even if Rivers did have such faith in Robinson, as Rondo writhed Rivers knew that both the Celtics championship dreams and Rondo’s hip could be shattered.
Sensing the tiniest amount of daylight between Rashard Lewis and Dwight Howard, Rondo sliced toward the basket and was tossed like a rag doll, crashing hard to the floor and landing squarely on his left hip.
Rivers took on the look of a bridled horse. He wanted to go to his fallen floor leader but didn’t want to hover over Rondo, as that would be akin to admitting the fall was as bad as it looked. Rivers tried to remain stoic, and as Robinson leapt from the bench and tore off his warm-ups Rivers’ expression didn’t change one bit.
Could this diminutive man, a three time slam dunk champion, a player Peter Vescey once referred to as a “circus freak,” a man who was a draft choice of Isaiah Thomas, one of the worst GMs in sports history, truly give the Celtics competent minutes off the bench in a must-win playoff game?
At that point, Robinson had played a total of 44 minutes in the Celtics playoff run, most of that in mop-up duty. He was the Celtics’ version of the early-2000s Tim Wakefield. We would only see these players if the game was out of hand in either direction.
But now, with Rondo in the all too familiar “Larry Bird” position on the sidelines, which is lying on one’s stomach with a heating pad on the lower back, would Robinson make Rivers look prophetic or pathetic?
Rivers had some recent empirical evidence to think that Robinson could at least hold down the fort.
“He gave me the confidence when he came into Game 5,” said Rivers. “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.”
I guess the pull-up, breakaway three pointer was one of those sets.
Robinson entered the game with the Celtics leading 30-19 and by the time his personal assault was done, which included a pair of three pointers, a beautiful bounce pass that led to a Kevin Garnett layup and a steal and breakaway in which he drew a flagrant foul on Jameer Nelson, the Celtics had an insurmountable 51-35 lead.
Assists? Steals? Who was this five foot nine imposter and what had he done with the real Nate Robinson? Was this a fleeting moment of glory for him, much like his 41 point outburst for the New York Knicks on New Year’s Day, or were we seeing the conception of the latest child in Doc Rivers’ Celtics family? A family built on defense, defense, defense.
The more important question: Can this continue?
The Big Three are the Big Three. We all know what they can do and how they do it. Over the last two years, though, Rondo has become the catalyst on both ends of the floor.
With Rondo’s quickness, court vision and overall pest-like qualities, teams have had to focus on him, giving the Big Three more room to work.
With Nate Robinson in the game, the Los Angeles Lakers will, obviously, not give him the same level of attention as Rondo, and that will put pressure on Robinson to produce.
Unless Rondo has spent time on the “Lost” island and taken advantage of its mysterious, quick healing properties, there is no way he is 100% going into the finals. Add in the fact that between Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar and Shannon Brown, the Lakers are rather thin defensively at point guard and we will see more of Robinson than we have in previous series.
The Lakers have been making some noise about Kobe Bryant covering Rondo, but I can’t see Phil Jackson pulling Bryant off of Ray Allen. Ron Artest has the ability to frustrate and even, on occasion, shut down Paul Pierce. Kevin Garnett and the improved Pau Gasol will most likely play to a standstill.
All of this makes point guard the key matchup for the Celtics, and it is a favorable one.
While subbing for Rondo, Robinson should be able to get his shot off. He is quicker than all three of LA’s point guards and, if he continues to commit to it the same way he did in Games 5 and 6 of the Orlando series, he is the superior defender.
Robinson will get looks, as the Lakers will also dare him to beat them. They will allow their point guards to drift and provide help defense when Rondo is on the bench. He needs to knock down shots and make the correct pass.
Robinson needs to think of himself as Mini Rondo. In fact, that is what we should call him.
(Digression: I’ve heard a lot of talk recently, especially on 98.5 The Sports Hub, who recently held a contest for it, that Rondo needs a nickname. I’ve heard some especially terrible and troubling ideas but the point is this: Does a man by the name of Rajon Rondo really need a nickname? His name already rolls off the tongue. Saying his name is like drinking a Mint Julep. Any nickname would have to trump his given name in smoothness. Something along the lines of Tranquility Masterson. Rondo is a singular player with a singular name. Let’s leave it be. That is all.)
It will take a team of wild, wild horses to pull Rondo off the court in these Finals, especially since Rondo should torch Fisher, but Rivers knows that, at this point, rest and fresh legs off the bench are of paramount importance.
Playoff series are all about matchups. The Lakers need to look no further than their 2001 finals victory over the Philadelphia 76ers when little-used backup point guard Tyronn Lue provided spark off the bench. Lue was inserted by Phil Jackson to counter the quickness of Allen Iverson.
Rivers will continue to use Robinson to give Rondo as much time off the court as possible. Robinson’s is the smiling visage of a streak player. He thrives on confidence and big moments and he will need to produce both in these finals.
Even if Robinson doesn’t have the impact on these finals as he did the Orlando series, he has added his name to the pantheon of one time heroes in Boston sports.
He brings to mind men like Bernie Carbo, Dave Roberts, Doug Flutie and Dave Henderson. Men whose indelible stamp on the Boston sports scene consisted of one shining moment.
Successful championship teams always get contributions from the most unlikely of sources. Players who are little-used or little-recognized cement their legacy with one shining moment.
If nothing else, Robinson has etched him self into Boston sports history with his Game 6 performance. Unlike the other players mentioned, though, Robinson will be heard from again.