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Nate Robinson Steps Up (Again) In Rondo's Absence

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It's time to start Nate Robinson. I'm not just talking about the next couple games, either, while Rondo nurses his hamstring back to health. Robinson should start for the rest of the season. He's been THAT good in Rondo's absence this year.

Okay, so I'm being completely sarcastic. When Rondo is healthy, there's no chance in Arkansas that Robinson should start. Still, Robinson's strong play in the starting lineup has been cause for cheer.

The game simply comes easier to Robinson when he's surrounded by four future Hall-of-Famers. On some levels it makes a lot of sense that it would, but it wasn't a given that Robinson's shot-first mentality would mesh with the talents of his four aging-superstar teammates. Robinson isn't a pure point guard, or really anything close to it. He's a jitterbug of a scorer, a 5'9" (in heels) flash of lightning who often makes an immediate impact on games (for better or worse). Yet he has succeeded when pushed into the starting lineup, mostly by following Doc Rivers's advice:

"Doc is always like, 'Stay aggressive,' 'Be you,'" Robinson told the Boston Globe.

And that's what Robinson does, even when playing alongside four living legends. He doesn't try to be Rajon Rondo. He doesn't try to throw 20 assists, or grow eyes on all sides of his head, or become some evolutionary mix of John Stockton, Gary Payton and Jason Kidd. That's Rondo's job, and Robinson knows he can't fill those shoes. So he doesn't try. Instead, he just settles for being himself.

At times, it's frustrating that Nate Robinson is still Nate Robinson. There was one play yesterday when he caught a pass near midcourt, and he was ahead of any defender. He probably could have driven straight to the hoop and made an easy dunk or layup, but, well, that apparently wasn't his plan. Instead, Robinson looped to the right wing, where he fired a three-pointer. It clanged off the rim, and the Celtics' brief 3-on-1 fast break was thwarted by Robinson's bad shot selection (and bad is a drastic under-exaggeration). 

But those moments were few and far between. For the most part, Robinson made good decisions. For the most part, he earned praise and not insults. It's easy to see his 21 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists, and conclude Robinson played well. But he put together more than just a solid line; he also ran the team like a lead guard should.

For every bucket Robinson hit, there was a good decision he made that can't be found in a box score. There was one play when Kevin Garnett was being defended by Anthony Morrow. Immediately, Robinson recognized the mismatch and fed KG. The play resulted in two Garnett free throws. It also resulted in me thinking, "Wow, Nate looks like a real point guard out there today."

Robinson certainly played a nice floor game, but don't forget his defensive contributions. I'm not always a fan of his defense, either. Too often, he resembles an annoying gnat that can be swatted away with ease. But yesterday, he stayed in front of his man. I counted four times Robinson's opponent tried to penetrate around him. Each time, Robinson moved his feet laterally and cut off the penetration. Even on one occasion when Devin Harris scored an and-one, Robinson had cut off his penetration to the baseline. It's weird to be excited when an opponent scores an and-one, but that's how I felt. "Yes!" I thought. "Nate is using his world-class athleticism on both ends! He doesn't always do that." That Harris made an and-one was inconsequential -- once in a while, offensive players will score even against the best defense. What mattered to me was that Robinson used his quickness to divert Harris (an uber-fast point guard) from getting to the paint.

Robinson isn't always that focused, of course. There was another occasion when Harris (not exactly Steve Kerr) offered an up-fake at the three-point line. Robinson jumped through the rafters to block the shot attempt (which wasn't really a shot attempt at all), and Harris drove freely into the lane. Alas, it was Robinson's day. Harris lost the ball, the Celtics picked it up, and Robinson's worst defensive play of the game actually ended with him scoring an uncontested layup. 

That one poor defensive play aside, Robinson spent yesterday making a positive impact on both ends of the court. When Rondo is injured, Robinson has been a godsend. Which begs the question, why doesn't he always play so well?

The answer to that question is probably a combination of a couple reasons. First, it's easier to play well when playing extended minutes. Knowing he had plenty of time to settle into the game likely afforded Robinson a higher comfort level. Second, there is the aforementioned presence of four Hall-of-Famers. Robinson normally plays alongside Semih Erden, Marquis Daniels and Glen Davis. Running instead with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett has its perks.

"It’s easier with the starters for him, because he’s not the focal point at all," Rivers told the Globe. "Where with the second unit, they want to stop Nate because they know his offense is big for our second unit.

"With the starters, he’s the afterthought. There was twice where they were trapping him and they left Nate. He doesn’t get that a lot with the second unit."

At the end of the day, THAT'S the biggest difference between Rajon Rondo and Nate Robinson (besides their two structurally-different approaches to the point guard position). Rondo has reached the level where he now makes the Big Three even better, while Robinson hasn't (and probably never will). Instead, the Big Three make Robinson better, which really works out when he's forced into the starting lineup.

Will Robinson ever be as productive with the second unit as he has been with the starters? Not likely. As a reserve, he won't receive the playing time to make such an impact, nor will he be freed by the presence of better players. But as long as Robinson continues to make (mostly) good decisions one one end, and (mostly) keep his feet in front of his opponent on the other, you won't hear many complaints from me.