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Robinson emerges as star pupil

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 29, 2010

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Nate Robinson described his transition from the Knicks to the Celtics as public school to private school, a comparison as accurate as that 25-foot pull-up 3-pointer that began his 13-point, second-quarter barrage last night at TD Garden.

In public school, the standards are lower. Robinson’s behavior and performance were graded on a lower scale. The discipline was flimsy, the expectations were minimal and Robinson became the face of the Knicks’ indifferent culture, so much so that coach Mike D’Antoni benched him for an entire month.

His arrival in Boston three months ago was met with great enthusiasm. Robinson’s game has never been doubted.

When those jumpers are falling, he can be one of the game’s most explosive players, a 5-foot-9-inch dynamo of excitement, just as he was during the Celtics’ 96-84 Game 6 Eastern Conference finals-clinching win over the Orlando Magic.

But conforming to Boston’s system was eerily like a public school kid adjusting to private school. He didn’t favor the dress code or the authority. Celtics coach Doc Rivers believed Robinson would flourish with increased discipline and a new environment. Instead, he rebelled at times.

Rivers’s patience grew short. Things Robinson got away with in public school he tried with the Celtics, and that annoyed the coach. Robinson did not truly embrace the defensive system. He made poor on-court decisions and his immature actions in the locker room stunned Rivers.

So for most of the final month and postseason, Robinson was relegated to the bench. Yet, Rivers repeated that one game during the playoffs Robinson was going to make a difference. And last night was the night.

When Dwight Howard crunched Rajon Rondo to the floor with 32.7 seconds left in the first quarter, and Rondo needed a break to begin the second, Robinson came on with his best stretch of basketball as a Celtic. He gave Rondo the relief he has needed for the entire postseason.

In 8 minutes 46 seconds, Robinson scored 13 points, and added an assist, a steal, and strong defense on Jameer Nelson and Jason Williams.

The Celtics have lacked a backup point guard and when they desperately needed to give Rondo a break, Robinson pushed all of his habits aside and produced.

“Nate Robinson was huge in the first half,’’ Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “I mean, that was a huge, huge lift for them to have [13] points in the first half. This is a guy who scored a lot of points in New York.

“I think what he did tonight was probably what they had in mind when they made the deal [with the Knicks]. I guess for whatever reason he hadn’t played much for them, but in an absolutely huge game, he stepped up and played great tonight.’’

Robinson has spent his four-year career trying to prove he is more than a sideshow.

He is a three-time slam dunk champion. The son of former University of Washington football standout Jacque Robinson has always been the diminutive kid with the freakish athleticism. He passed on football after a successful freshman season at Washington to pursue basketball, and left school early after leading the Huskies to the NCAA Tournament.

Success has been fleeting, however. Robinson enjoyed his share of moments with the Knicks, often slapping hands with courtside celebrities after big plays, but what made Robinson a fan favorite also damaged his reputation.

He was considered immature and too emotional. Instead of the crisp pass or running the offense, Robinson hurried the ball up court and launched 25-footers.

The Celtics fully realized the Robinson experiment would either be wildly successful or a failure, nothing in between. If the Celtics can win an NBA title and Robinson continues to spell a weary Rondo, it has to be considered a success.

After the game, Rivers sought out Robinson and embraced him.

“I told him I loved him, and I told him at some point it was going to happen for him,’’ Rivers said. “And it was all up to him to stay engaged. And he did. I get no credit out of this. Nate Robinson stayed focused in 30-straight-whatever games without playing, and stayed focused. And to me, that is more important than anything he’s done tonight.’’

And it was validation he is no longer just a standout at All-Star weekends. Robinson, in his rather pompous way, seeks acceptance. In his vigor to gain respect, he is susceptible to questionable decisions.

But the time with the Big Three and the rest of the veterans appears to be rubbing off.

“It’s kind of overwhelming,’’ he said. “You have to have that chip on your shoulder, no matter where you play and no matter how you do. I just kept hearing [Rivers] say [I was going to have one big game] to the media, hearing him say it to me, to the team. I wondered when the game was going to happen and I wanted to bring the energy.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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