Yeah, like you knew that was going to happen.
Remember the end of 'D3: The Mighty Ducks' when Goldberg, of all people, scores the game-winning goal to defeat the varsity team, causing Portman and Germaine to stare at each other and go: "Goldberg?...Goldberg!"?
As I was watching Nate Robinson erupt for a 13-point second quarter in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals last night, I found myself in the midst of an almost identical reaction: "Nate Robinson?...Nate Robinson!"
My surprise did not stem from a lack of belief in the talent Robinson possesses, but rather, the simple fact that he has played such a minor role for the Celtics in these 2010 playoffs. I certainly expected some things to be different from Game 5. I figured Paul Pierce would take more than eight shots, Ray Allen would find his stroke at the appropriate time, and I assumed Rajon Rondo would record more than six assists. But did I expect Robinson to contribute in such a momentous manner? Nope. Did you? But, we can now sit here, both pleasantly surprised and enamored in the wake of what unfolded last night.
Perhaps it's a direct result of his insider access, but Doc Rivers has been dead-on on two of his most important predictions heading into the postseason. Way back in the regular season, he maintained his stance that his team was "close", and they shifted gears at the appropriate time once the playoffs got under way. He also anticipated a game-changing performance from Robinson in the postseason, which, even more than his prediction for his club as a whole, might have seemed like nothing more than blowing smoke.
But Doc stayed true to his premonition, imploring Robinson after each and every practice to stay in tune with what the Celtics were doing. And as much as you wanted to buy into the idea of Robinson playing the role of the hero (insert KryptoNate vs. Superman joke here), what evidence was there to go off of that such a scenario could actually unfold? Doc stuck to a steady rotation of the five usual starters, along with Tony Allen, Glen Davis, and Rasheed Wallace. Robinson played a grand total of 12 minutes in five games against the Miami Heat, and followed those up with a mere 17 minutes in six games against the Cleveland Cavaliers, with 13 of those minutes coming in the 29-point loss in Game 3.
Robinson failed to find the court in Games 1 and 2 against the Magic, before earning spot minutes in Games 3 and 4. And once the Celtics lost two straight games, you began to hear the subtle rumblings about the Celtics not possessing a prototypical backup point guard to spell Rajon Rondo, who appeared to be battling either fatigue, or some minor injuries.
And, in the end, it was the threat of injury to Rondo that propelled Robinson into action, and he entered the fray fully armed, like Keanu Reeves when he walked through the security scanner towards the end of 'The Matrix'. Rondo crashed to the floor (a place he's got to be used to by now) and landed harshly on his left side at the tail end of the first quarter, and Robinson supplanted him as the team's point guard at the start of the second frame.
While the initial effects were almost instantaneous, the duration of Robinson's personal blitzkrieg was of equal importance, as for the first 8:43 of the second quarter, he served as an agent of chaos on both sides of the ball - something the Magic did not seem overly prepared for.
Robinson's scoring, primarily in the forms of three-pointers and midrange jump shots, might not have been met with as much surprise as his overall play making skills and impactful prowess on the defensive end last night. You might have expected a few of those three-pointers to drop, but wasn't it just the least bit eye opening when he made those crisp passes to Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis inside (it's a shame Davis couldn't convert what was practically a wide open layup)? Or what about his activity while defending Orlando's pick-and-roll action on the other end? Beyond thoroughly disrupting what Jameer Nelson wanted to do, he also managed to draw Nelson's third foul of the first half, which ended up being ruled a flagrant foul as it came on the heels of that open court scramble for the ball with 6:36 remaining. For the second time this series, a Celtic point guard out-hustled an Orlando point guard in the open court while going for a loose ball. Nelson retreated to the bench, and Robinson knocked down the free throws. And speaking of third fouls, Dwight Howard picked up his third foul just minutes after the incident with Nelson, as Robinson went charging down the lane, and rose up, with every intention of slamming the ball home if no one intervened. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), Howard chose to disrupt Robinson's path and also took a seat on the bench because of it. Just like that, Robinson almost single-handedly removed Orlando's two best players for the rest of the half.
But beyond all of this, what was perhaps most important was the pure energy Robinson injected into his team, as well as the confidence he instilled in a slightly shaken fanbase. His reactions to all of his buckets were arguably just as important as the buckets themselves, as a certain fearlessness was evident in him. In a very obvious manner he let everyone know he was knocking down his shots, throwing his hands up to rile up the crowd, while simultaneously yelling, taking a page out of the book of his much taller teammate, Kevin Garnett. He was almost daring the Magic to silence him, and with every failed attempt, his exuberance amplified itself. With Rondo laying on his stomach next to the bench, with his back wrapped up, there was no need to rush him back. There was no sense of panic, or even the slightest of letdowns. On the contrary, Robinson entered the action with his team ahead, 30-19. When he headed back to the bench with 3:27 left in the half, the Celtics led, 51-35.
Robinson's first half outburst was all the Celtics needed from him. He failed to score in the second half, but it didn't matter. Both Ray Allen and Garnett found their respective grooves, and a few three-pointers courtesy of Pierce helped to shut the door and end Orlando's season. In a game of respectable importance, coming in the wake of two shaky losses, the Celtics needed what Robinson provided - the steady production of an unlikely hero - and while they might not have been counting on it heading into the game, they certainly fed off of it once it began to unfold, and used it to advance to the NBA Finals.