Keeping Score

How Nate Robinson and Stephen Curry — The Little Guys — Have Taken Over the NBA Playoffs

Please, basketball gods, let these two guys keep playing out of their minds.

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Adam Hunger / REUTERS

Chicago Bulls point guard Nate Robinson drives to the basket defended by Brooklyn Nets center Andray Blatche in New York, on April 4, 2013.

The wave-off, really, was the highlight. And it tells you everything you need to know about Nate Robinson, Chicago‘s 5’9″ sprite of a point-guard/gunner. About 20 seconds earlier, Robinson had hit a 19-footer to give his team an 88-86 lead against the Miami Heat, the defending champs, winners of 27-straight games at one point this season, employer of freshly-crowned MVP LeBron James, all that, in Game 1 of their second round playoff series. And after Dwyane Wade’s ill-advised heave at the other end failed to give the Heat the lead, Robinson had the ball, and waved-off teammate Joakim Noah, who inched up from the low-post to set a screen on Robinson’s defender, Ray Allen. No matter that Noah is one of the best screeners in the league, and just wanted to help his teammate. No matter that Robinson had 10 stitches in his lower lip, thanks to a first-half collision with James. And that two nights ago, during Chicago’s resilient Game 7 victory against the Brooklyn Nets, on the road, Gerald Wallace of the Nets stomped on Robinson’s head.

No, Robinson, whose utterly ridiculous confidence seems to be rubbing off on these Bulls, wanted Allen one-on-one. Robinson made the right call, dribbling to his left and darting right by Allen into the foul lane, where he lofted a scoop shot over Chris Bosh. Chicago was now up four, 90-86, with 45 seconds left. One James air ball later, it was wrapped up. Chicago pulled off the stunner.

Chicago’s excellent run might not last, especially against a Heat team that is sure to be awakened from a playoff slumber. After sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks last Sunday, Miami had a week-long layoff. Chicago’s Luol Deng, who led the NBA in minutes played per game this season, watched Game 1 from a hospital bed, because of complications from a spinal tap procedure. Derek Rose is sticking to his cautious approach in returning from the ACL injury he suffered last playoffs. He hasn’t suited up all year, and probably won’t this series. On paper, Chicago don’t have the firepower. But it’s fun while it’s lasting, mainly thanks to Robinson.

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And it got better. After the Bulls won, NBA fans last night were treated to another guy who looks like he can play in your rec league, but is taking over the NBA playoffs: Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Curry is slight — 6’3″, 185 pounds — and still baby-faced. But he’s a modern-day Pistol Pete Maravich, able to dribble around the perimeter and fire up a shot on no-notice. Double teams don’t matter. Curry dropped 44 points on the San Antonio Spurs, and handed out 11 assists, in Game 1 of that second round series. If it weren’t for a defense breakdown that allowed Manu Ginobili to sink the game-winning three-pointer at the end of the second overtime — San Antonio prevailed, 129-127, in a classic — Golden State, like Chicago, would have stolen a road win to open a series against a favored opponent. Curry played all but four seconds, 58 minutes in total, in the loss. The only other player to ever score that many points, and hand out that many assists, in a playoff game was Michael Jordan, who scored 45 and had 11 assists against the Philadelphia 76ers back in 1990.

Golden State is more likely to upset the Spurs than Chicago is to knock off Miami, though the Warriors did blow a 16-point lead last night late in the fourth quarter, which doesn’t bode well. But no matter the final results, fans are better off if these series stretch as long as possible. When players like Robinson and Curry, who don’t have the superhuman size or strength of typical NBA stars, confound us with their circus-shots, their ability to score over taller defenders, etc., the games become more compelling. You just can’t keep your eyes off the little guys.

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