If you hadn’t noticed, the Chicago Bulls narrowly missed out on the playoffs this season. Ok, that’s not exactly true. Nonetheless, here we’re watching other teams compete in the postseason while hoping draft lottery balls bounce favourably for the Bulls.
It’s this time of the year where greatness and lasting memories are made — we won’t be forgetting Damian Lillard’s walk-off 3-pointer anytime soon. Unfortunately, moments like this won’t be happening in Chicago anytime soon, and so we have a choice to make: live vicariously through other fan bases during these playoffs, or go back into the vault and remember some of the better times from yesteryear.
For nostalgic reasons, let’s choose the latter. Fortunately for Bulls fans, there have been countless iconic playoff moments for this franchise, many of which featuring the greatest player (and team) of all time. As grand and eternal as those dynasty memories are, they’re also too obvious. Instead, let’s go back to a time where the Bulls had no business even reaching the playoffs.
Losing Derrick Rose to a long-term injury in the opening game of the 2012 playoffs dashed any chance of a title run. It simultaneously crushed any realistic hopes for the following season. And it’s easy to see why: as a defensive juggernaut built around a singular offensive force, winning games without Rose seemed implausible.
Without Rose, the Bulls were nothing more than a team full of high-end role players. As good as Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer were, they couldn’t sustain an offense as lead options. Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah embodied all the cultural traits synonymous with the Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan teams of the 70’s, but spirit and soul alone doesn’t win championships (someone tell Jim Boylen.)
High-end talent wins in the NBA. Rose was that, but he was gone. A joyless 2012-13 season is what the fan base was expecting. It would’ve been had Nate Robinson signed elsewhere.
Inked to a veterans minimum contract deep in free agency, Robinson was to be nothing more than an end of the bench stop gap. Or so we thought.
As one of the few players on the roster capable of creating his own offense, the 5-foot-9 point guard quickly became one of the most important cogs to a team hell-bent on defying lowly preseason expectations.
And that they did.
Without Rose, the Bulls willed their way to a 45 win regular season, a mark good enough to qualify as the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed. Matched up against the Brooklyn Nets, very few pundits picked the Bulls to overcome their more experienced opponent. But as they had done all season, the Bulls continued to exceed expectations, entering game four with a chance to take a commanding 3-1 series lead. At least that was the plan.
Down by 14 points deep in the fourth quarter, a significant opportunity was slipping through Chicago’s hands. If they were to make the miracle happen, they needed an opening. We didn’t know it at the time, but a missed C.J. Watson breakaway dunk would prove to be that chance.
We also had no idea this difficult, off the bounce 3-pointer would be the catalyst of one the most unlikely and incredible individual playoff performances of all time.
Sure, Robinson may have sunk a tough three, but the Nets still had a double-digit lead with 2:50 left to play. It should’ve been enough. In any other game, it probably is. Of course, that didn’t stop Robinson from launching up prayers. Fortunately for the Bulls, the basketball gods were listening.
Cue the onslaught. On the next possession down, using a strong Joakim Noah screen to stream into the paint, Robinson flipped in an absurd right-handed layup over an out-stretched Brook Lopez.
A 14-point lead had quickly reduced to nine with 2:19 to play. Conventional wisdom would still suggest the Bulls had no real chance of mounting a comeback. But in typical Bulls fashion, prepare for the unexpected.
Back-to-back baskets quickly turned into a run, which soon transformed into a fourth quarter take over. The more Robinson shot, the more he hit. The more he hit, the greater degree of difficulty the next shot became. We’re not talking about some trivial catch-and-shoot corner threes here. That weak shit isn’t for Nate Robinson. If it wasn’t an off-balanced midrange jumper, Nate wasn’t having it — style points were important as the buckets themselves.
Stopping and popping like this with a defender on your tail is damn hard. Doing so with your team needing a bucket deep in the fourth quarter? Yeah, that’s tough. Yet Robinson still made it, bringing the Bulls within seven points with two minutes to spare.
Moments later, now with the Bulls only four points back on the Nets, Robinson would again contort his body into a difficult midrange jumper. As the shot fell, so did Robinson, making this made jumper even more impactful.
In less than two minutes, thanks to some incredible shot making by the Bulls’ backup point guard, Chicago had reduced a 14-point Brooklyn lead to two. With less than a minute remaining, Robinson made sure that lead disappeared with a beautiful left-handed push pass that found Carlos Boozer on the reverse lay in, tying the game at 109.
As unlikely as it seemed, the comeback was complete. Erupting for 23 points in the final frame, the Bulls’ backup point guard single-handedly forced overtime, bringing the Bulls back from the brink. But he wasn’t done.
From distance, Robinson curled around screens and rose up, using his insane vertical leap to bury jumpers over out-stretched defenders in crucial playoff possessions.
With scores tied at 119 and less than five seconds to play in the first overtime period, Robinson again rescued a stagnant Bulls offense, throwing up and in an unlikely one-handed runner.
Robinson may have called bank, but thanks to a last second Joe Johnson basket which saved the Nets, the Bulls were headed to another overtime period. Good. We wanted to see Nate cook some more, anyway.
Look at this, shit. I mean, truly look at it, and understand the context of what took place. One of the shortest players in league history, signed to the smallest contract possible, is waltzing into the paint against humans towering above 7-feet and draining difficult shots at the rim in an playoff overtime thriller.
Buoyed by Robinson’s constant and unpredictable offensive onslaught, the Bulls outlasted the Nets after three extra periods, escaping with an improbable 142-134 victory in a game that lasted just under four hours.
Robinson, the unlikely hero, was masterful, finishing the game with 34 points (14-of-23 shooting) and delivering one of the most inexplicable and memorable playoff moments in league history.
Just as Paul George declared Lillard’s last second heave a bad shot, most would say the same for many of Robinson’s attempts. And with good reason – technically, most of these shots were poor, inefficient looks. But that’s Nate Robinson. As improbable as his attempts may have been, the Bulls had no chance of winning this game without Robinson’s unorthodox heroics and bravado.
I always think I’m on fire, kind of like the old school game NBA Jam. You make a couple in a row, the rim’s on fire. You shoot the ball, the ball’s on fire. I feel like that at times -- all the time. Whenever I’m in the game, I just play with a lot of confidence. You kind of have to lie to yourself and feel like you can’t miss.
More than anything else, it’s a performance like this which reminds us all that winning a championship isn’t everything. If that were true, Robinson dismantling the Nets wouldn’t matter. A Bulls team without its MVP fighting against the odds and advancing to the second round wouldn’t matter. But it does. The Rose-less Bulls are remembered so fondly because of moments like this, and it’s why, six years later on, we’re able to relive and revel in one of the greatest performances in franchise history.