NEW YORK – New York Knicks’ head coach Mike D’Antoni has a dream.
He hopes that Nate Robinson can keep playing the way his coach needs his diminutive but quick and energy-filled guard to play in order for the Knicks to win games.
So, in the spirit of that vision, it was somewhat fitting that Robinson continued to give the Knicks exactly what D’Antoni has been seeking from him lately, during this year’s edition of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Day matinee at Madison Square Garden on Monday.
Though Dr. King’s legacy is of course far more important than basketball, Knick fans nonetheless, thoroughly enjoyed watching Robinson score a game-high 27 points to lead the Knicks (17-24) to a 99-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons (14-26) in the second game of a home-and-home set.
After weathering an extended visit to D’Antoni’s doghouse that benched him for all but 10 minutes in the month of December, including the final 14 games of the month, Robinson has returned in January to average 15.9 points per game.
“I thought he played well,” D’Antoni said of Robinson, who shot 11 of 18 from the floor, including 5 of 9 from three-point range in 33 minutes off the bench. “There are times that he’s not a natural point guard, and we’re trying to throw him over into that role, so it’s not easy for him, but as long as he keeps his energy up and focus, we can kind of work around it.”
Though it was Robinson’s offense which carried the Knicks, it’s the less noticeable things that show up in the boxscore, and even the intangibles that don’t, which are keeping Robinson in the lineup of late, and the Knicks’ biggest spark off the bench is well aware of that fact.
“I’m just trying to show everybody that I can do more than just score,” Robinson said. “I’m hustling and doing everything I can to help this team win.”
Robinson knows his increased playing time is for now, conditional upon things such as the solid defense he played while dishing out four assists and committing just one turnover against the Pistons, and he seems to have received the message.
“If I wait another 14 games,” Robinson said, “I’m going to have to wait until my number’s called again… you gotta be patient and wait your turn.”
D’Antoni however, also recognizes Robinson’s value when he’s playing the brand of basketball that the coach has preached to his point guard.
“He gives us something we need and that’s athleticism,” D’Antoni said. “We have to have everything else. We have to have the defense [from him] and the sound play, but he does give us something that we need.”
And, Robinson provided just that, beginning in the second quarter, after the Knicks fell behind at the start, caught up, and then had trouble pulling away against the short-handed Pistons, who were without leading scorer Richard Hamilton as well as three of their next five leading scorers (Ben Gordon, Wil Bynum, and Tayshaun Prince).
Detroit opened with a 9-1 lead as it took the Knicks 3:35 to score (on a free throw by forward Jared Jeffries) and 4:07 before New York made its first field goal, on a jumper by Wilson Chandler.
That shot ignited a 12-0 run during which Chandler scored nine points, to give the Knicks a 13-9 lead. He finished the period with 11 points on 5 of 6 shooting from the floor, but he went just 2-for-6 from the field the rest of the game, failing to score in the second half, while finishing with 17 points (although he contributed defensively, as the only player with multiple blocked shots, with four).
Detroit’s three leading scorers (Rodney Stuckey, Ben Wallace, and Austin Day) were the only players to score for the Pistons in the opening quarter, which ended in a 23-all tie.
Stuckey and Wallace each had 10 first-quarter points, with Wallace scoring his 10 points consecutively, after the Knicks’ 12-0 run, to keep the game tied at 19.
Forward Charlie Villanueva scored 10 of his 16 points off the bench in second quarter, but that was half of his team’s total in a period in which New York outscored Detroit 34-20, to take a 53-47 halftime lead, thanks mostly, to 13 second-quarter points from Robinson, who didn’t hesitate when shots were available.
“My teammates and my coach told me I have to be aggressive,” Robinson said. “That’s just who I am. They [felt] the last couple games, I hadn’t been that aggressive. They told me, just be yourself.”
Robinson, who on Sunday, agreed to return to defend last year’s slam dunk title at this year’s NBA all-star weekend in Dallas on February 13th, electrified the crowd, when he moved along the left baseline unguarded, and took a long lob pass from guard Chris Duhon for a nice alley oop dunk with 54.8 seconds left in the half.
The high-flying guard considers it an honor to be mentioned as a slam dunk title winner after admitting he marveled at past winners such as Spud Webb and Dominique Wilkins.
Still, he tempers his excitement to compete for an unprecedented third slam dunk title while realizing that such flashiness isn’t what will help him become a more complete player.
“The dunk contest, it’s all fun and games,” he said. “Hopefully, I can be the first one to win three… [but] if I don’t win it, it’ll be good, I [won’t] have to go back no more. I’m an all-around player… but it’s pretty cool to be labeled as one of the best dunkers ever.”
After the game, Robinson yelled across the Knicks’ locker room to forward Danilo Gallinari, who despite being one of the league’s best three-point shooter, will not participate in the all-star weekend’s three-point shootout.
Robinson asked Gallinari to help him with his dunks in Dallas, but Gallinari plans to go nowhere near the all-star festivities. Gallinari responded to the request with a nervous, wide smile while quickly shaking his head ‘no,’ prompting laughs from reporters.
That won’t stop Robinson from trying though. “He don’t wanna go,” Robinson said. “He wants to on vacation and relax with his family. I don’t blame him… I’m gonna make him go.”
All of the good that the Knicks did in the first half was undone in an awful third quarter, as New York scored a season low while being outscored 27-11.
A nice stutter-step dribble drive by Robinson, who double clutched in the lane with two seconds left in the quarter prevented the Knicks from being held to single digits in the period just after Detroit matched its largest lead of the game, 70-66.
Forward David Lee (who was held eight points below his average of 19 points per game) grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds, 11 in the first half, as the Knicks outrebounded the Pistons 27-19 in the opening two quarters.
The rebounding battle was a completely different story in the second half, and especially the third quarter however, as the Pistons simply began to outwork the Knicks to seemingly every loose ball while beating New York to a lot of rebounds on the Knicks’ backboard.
Detroit outrebounded New York 12-3 in the third quarter and 46-39 for the game, including 19-7 on the offensive glass.
Wallace had five (three offensive) of his team-high 14 rebounds to go along with four points in the period. Meanwhile, Stuckey and Daye added six points and forward Jason Maxiell led all scorers in the quarter, scoring 7 of his 13 in the quarter.
With so many key players out of the lineup, a lot of Piston players scored more than they had in a while.
Stuckey led Detroit with 22 points, the most he’s scored this month, since scoring the same amount in a new year’s eve loss to Chicago.
Wallace scored a season-high 16 points, the most he scored since he had 19 in a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on March 20, 2007.
Detroit’s pair of 2005 first-round draft picks also had much bigger days than normal. Daye, who entered the game averaging just 13 minutes and 4.8 points per game, played 32 minutes and made the most of his opportunity with a career-high 16 points, while Maxiell scored the most since scoring the same amount in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on November 17th.
The Knicks rallied back in the final quarter though, led by Robinson, who scored eight points in the fourth period.
Robinson started the quarter by making a steal and finishing with a layup at the other end to tie the game, 70-70.
On the next possession, Robinson made a beautiful pass under the basket to forward Al Harrington (17 points, one of five players on each team who scored in double figures), who made two free throws after a flagrant foul, to put the Knicks up for good, 72-70, with 11:06 left in the game.
After a Harrington three-pointer put the Knicks ahead 78-74, Gallinari scored New York’s next seven points, making a left corner three-pointer, a step back right corner jumper off the dribble, and a driving dunk from the left corner after faking a three, to give the Knicks an 85-76 lead, forcing a Detroit timeout with 6:47 left.
With 5:46 remaining, Robinson buried a 26-foot three-pointer, to put the Knicks up 88-78, and the Pistons would get no closer than 92-87 on a Maxiell jumper with 1:10 left.
“I think we were a little sluggish,” Robinson said. “We went back to being tense instead of just being relaxed. I think the fourth quarter, we just relaxed and we just found a way to have fun and play together.”
The Knicks have hosted afternoon games on Martin Luther King Day ever since 1986, when they lost to Philadelphia. They won the next nine (1987-1995) and 13 of 14, before losing three of five. However, the win on Monday was their third MLK Day win in four years, improving the Knicks to 18-6 all-time on the holiday, and it also avenged a 94-90 loss in Detroit on Saturday.
More importantly, the Knicks have gone 14-10 since a 3-14 start, to pull within two games of Chicago (18-21) for the Eastern conference’s final playoff spot, at the season’s halfway point.
D’Antoni is happy with the Knicks’ recent progress, but knows his team still has much work to do to improve further.
“Since we settled down a little bit, we’re kind of in the mode that we should be,” he said. “We’re playing well, [but] a little uneven in the last five games, not great mental energy… whether it’s humanly possible or not to be up all the time, I don’t know, but we need to be able to do that, especially.”
In terms of providing that energy and more, as long as Robinson does the other things which D’Antoni and the rest of the Knicks’ coaching staff asks of him, he should remain a very welcome piece of the Knicks’ lineup during the second half of the season.