MIAMI – Whatever happens in Game 2, Game 3 or Game 7 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series, Bulls fans will have this image: Nate Robinson standing at the top of the key with 10 fresh stitches in his lower lip, stamping his foot, waving off a screen and blitzing past Ray Allen for a game-clinching fourth-quarter layup that sent Heat fans home in silence.
It was the signature moment for a player and team with a blend of grit and moxie that has taken a flash-first league completely by surprise.
Let it marinate for a moment: a third-string point guard standing less than 6 feet tall scored 27 points to beat LeBron James and the defending NBA champions in Game 1.
"For somebody that size to do the things he does," Bulls center Joakim Noah told Yahoo! Sports in an empty locker room after Chicago beat Miami, 93-86. "You tell me a player under 6 feet tall who's better, in the history of the game."
With all due respect to NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy, that's a hard question to answer in the aftermath of a performance that stunned pretty much everyone who witnessed it. Throughout the game, the Heat looked poised to eat the undermanned Bulls alive, like they've done to pretty much every team this season. James scored only two points in the first half but took charge in the second, scoring 24 in a flurry of jumpers and three-point plays. Yet every time the Heat had a four-point lead that looked ready to be a 12-point lead, the Bulls came back, led by a 28-year-old guard who spat blood onto the court after a first-half collision with James and then found himself staring at a gash in the bathroom mirror that led him to say, "Whoa."
How did Robinson respond? He told the Chicago team doctor to "Hurry up." The stitches went in before the end of halftime. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau asked Robinson to inform him when he was ready to return. Robinson shot back, "I'm ready now."
Was he ever. Robinson and the Bulls blitzed the Heat with 35 fourth-quarter points to put the heavy favorites out of commission. This is a team without Derrick Rose, Kirk Hinrich or Luol Deng – all lost to a MASH unit of injuries both cringe-inducing and cryptic. (Taj Gibson and Noah are also hobbled.)
Forward Jimmy Butler logged 48 minutes for the third straight playoff game. He scored 21 points Monday, only three fewer than James. He also guarded James … on the night he received his fourth MVP trophy.
"Just gotta stand in front of him," Butler said, as if it were simple.
He would have been excused if he scored zero points Monday, just like Robinson would have been excused if he stayed in the locker room a few more minutes to nurse the hole in his face.
"Get stitched up and continue the battle," Robinson said after the game, clutching a bag of ice that was nearly as large as his head.
When it was time to put the game away, it was Robinson who did it, vociferously shunning a screen from Noah and blowing by Allen – a former teammate who he's always idolized. Robinson's finger-roll gave the Bulls a four-point lead with less than a minute to play.
It wasn't just Robinson, of course. It can't be. The Bulls don't have enough weapons to compete with the Heat's three-headed monster without a buy-in from everyone. They had double-digits from Noah, Gibson and Marco Belinelli as well. And more importantly, they had a game plan they ardently believed in.
"Every time they were on offense, it was exactly what Thibs showed us," said Gibson. "We just followed the plan."
That oughta scare Heat fans a little. The undermanned Bulls shouldn't be able to outsmart a team that's so overwhelming on offense. Miami has a guy who can play all five positions expertly in James, a Hall of Fame bound guard who thrives on physical play in Dwyane Wade and several guys who can drill threes over collapsing defenses. The Heat should be insoluble.
And most likely, over the length of a full series, they will be. The favorites looked rusty and sluggish. The Big Three of James, Wade and Chris Bosh hardly put together a full quarter, let alone a full game. And remember how the Pacers smacked the Heat last year in the playoffs, only to get the full brunt of an angry team later in a series that even a bruising and intelligent group of underdogs couldn't win.
Miami has seen this movie before, and it ended well for them.
Yet Thibodeau and the Bulls have at least one thing figured out: The Heat fuel up on transition basketball. Get them in a halfcourt set and both James and Wade can start to get frustrated. That's what happened Monday, and the Heat showed defeat on their faces. Even coach Erik Spoelstra seemed snippy when he mentioned three times how his team came into the fourth quarter with a four-point lead and got beat in the last 12 minutes by 11. He offered no excuses for the inexcusable.
In the locker room after the game, Robinson looked primed for more. His patter was non-stop as he re-enacted the lip-busting for Butler, pointed out a cut on his knee to Carlos Boozer and mentioned to no one in particular that he had blood on his T-shirt. Then he pulled on garish green socks, donned a polka-dot shirt and walked to the interview room with his mammoth ice bag, prepared to tell the world how there's something different and special about this team.
"We're playing for each other," he said. "We're playing for the city of Chicago."
And although it's just one win in a long series, it's becoming clear that the best little man in the NBA is bearing down and working for a playoff upset the likes of which this league has never seen.
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