At halftime of Monday night's game, it looked like the Knicks were going to let a golden opportunity to gain ground in the playoff race slip away. The Pacers, without their best three players, had tied them after 24 minutes, and the Knicks were playing with all the life and energy of the Rangers. They needed someone to save the day.
Once again, Nate Robinson stepped up. Continuing the best stretch of his career, Robinson dropped 32 points in the second half and the Knicks held off the Pacers 123-119 for a much needed win. He's now averaging 30 points, seven rebounds and six and a half assists per game over the last six, a stretch that's seen him put the team on his back over and over again. It's an astounding turn of events for a player who looked like he was shooting himself out of town in December and early January.
It's not just the improved shooting, it's the totality of Robinson's game that's made him the most valuable player on the roster of late. He isn't turning the ball over, he isn't gambling unnecessarily on defense and he isn't letting his exuberance overwhelm his team's needs. Yes, he celebrated like a lottery winner on New Year's Eve last night, but he still let the game come to him. When the Pacers sagged off him, he hit jumpers. When they crowded him, he blew past them and made layups, and if a route to the hoop wasn't there, he found the open man.
If Robinson wants to stay in New York after this season, he's going to get every chance. He was, more or less, a team mascot who didn't seem like he fit on a winning team for the bulk of his career. There would be flashes, but they would be erased by stupid, selfish plays. That's disappeared this month as Robinson has proven to be the only guard on the team that could actually make a difference between winning and losing.
The idea of signing two maximum players in 2010 was already compromised by Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries, so there has to be some thought given to providing a supporting cast worthy of a free agent. Robinson, David Lee, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and this year's first rounder isn't a bad group to team with a superstar and, perhaps, a veteran who will take less than the maximum. That's all in the future, though.
For right now, Robinson's the most important player on the team. He's gone from the court jester to emotional leader almost overnight, from a player who was overrated by fans to one whose contributions can't be overestimated.