Former Cougars, Huskies stars have nation’s attention in NBA playoffs

Former UW star Nate Robinson is making his presence loud and clear with Bulls in NBA playoffs. (Associated Press)

Ken Bone is perfect this week in NBA playoff predictions. During the Chicago Bulls’ win over the Miami Heat on Monday, the Washington State men’s basketball coach sent a text to assistant Curtis Allen forecasting Nate Robinson’s late-game heroics.

“I said Nate is either going to win it or lose it in the last five minutes of the game,” Bone said. “If he’s on the floor the last 5-6 minutes, then that’s how it’s going to be and usually he’s going to will his team to victory.”

Two nights later, Bone watched the San Antonio Spurs-Golden State Warriors game with a couple of WSU players. Together they realized what Bone had always said about former Cougars star Klay Thompson, who finished with career highs of 34 points and 14 rebounds for Golden State in its historic win.

“With Klay, I always felt he could do great things if he was in the right system and with the right coach,” Bone said. “He’s had the perfect opportunity to not only play, but play the way he plays best and that’s to have a green light and not worry about should I or shouldn’t I shoot.

“It’s a perfect scenario for Klay.”

For all the talk about LeBron James’ bid to repeat as NBA champion and Kevin Durant’s attempt to carry the Oklahoma City Thunder to the finals, two of the most engaging figures in the playoffs have been Robinson and Thompson.

Robinson, a fiery and emotional muscle-bound sparkplug, and Thompson, a soft-spoken, long and lanky shooter, couldn’t be more different in the way they approach basketball and life.

However, they share a couple of traits. They’re sons of standout athletes. Robinson’s father, Jacque, was a star Huskies running back from 1981 to 1984 while Thompson’s dad, Mychal, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft and a two-time NBA champion.

Robinson and Thompson are also torrential scorers who love the big stage.

“Nate has already scored 50 (actually, 45) in an NBA game,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “He has always elevated his play, the bigger the stage. He lives for moments like these. He is now an NBA veteran and knows what it takes to impact the game at that level.”

Said Bone: “It’s great to see both of these guys – Nate and Klay – have the success they’re having. For most of the country, maybe they’re starting to see what we’ve known around here for a while, which is those two guys are pretty good.”

Embodying Bulls’ spirit

In Robinson, the Chicago Bulls found an unlikely replacement for injured point guards Derrick Rose and Kirk Hinrich. Perhaps more important, the diminutive dynamo has embodied the spirit of the one of the toughest and grittiest teams in the league. Robinson battled through flu in the first round (though he managed to average 17 points against Brooklyn and scored 34 in a Game 4 triple-overtime win) and received 10 stitches in his lip during Monday’s second-round game.

At times he has carried the battered and beleaguered Bulls on his 5-foot-9 and 180-pound frame. In the Eastern Conference semifinals opener against the Heat, he scored 27 points in Chicago’s 93-86 upset win.

“God blessed me with a lot of heart and no height,” Robinson told reporters after the game. “I will take that any day.”

He managed just 11 points in a Game 2 loss. The Bulls return home for two games with the series tied 1-1.

“He’s fun to watch,” Bone said. “He makes things happen. Honestly, I thought he’d play two-three years and then play in the NFL.

“I got that one wrong.”

Thompson blossoming

However, Bone has always had a good read on Thompson, who is becoming a household name. Paired with backcourt mate Stephen Curry, he’s one half of the duo dubbed “the Splash Brothers.” They’re a marketing sensation, adorning T-shirts around the Bay Area. They also have their own Facebook page and a large fan following.

Golden State coach Mark Jackson calls Curry and Thompson “the greatest shooting backcourt that’s ever played the game.”

Curry, a 6-3 point guard who set an NBA season record with 272 3-pointers and averaged 22.9 points during the regular season, is the Warriors’ biggest star.

But Thompson can’t be ignored. The second-year veteran averaged 16.1 points during the regular season and 17.6 points in the playoffs.

Bone isn’t surprised by Thompson’s success. He knew the 6-7 guard was special when he took the Washington State job four years ago. Bone watched every game from the previous season and concluded the Cougars were underutilizing Thompson.

“I’m not knocking the system at all – a great system under coach Tony Bennett – but Klay was really just a catch-and-shoot guy,” Bone said. “We needed more. We needed him to score a variety of ways.”

The most damning statistic for Thompson, who averaged 12.5 points as a freshman, was his 31 free-throw attempts in 33 games. Bone replaced WSU’s halfcourt-oriented offense with an up-tempo scheme built around its mercurial shooting guard.

“I asked the video coordinator to pull up some James Harden stuff because Klay’s got to learn how to drive it and be aggressive like Harden,” Bone said. “So we tried to mix the ability of him being able to shoot it and being able to drive and at times post up. And he really became a great scorer for us, obviously.

“And he’s doing that now.”


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