The alley-oop from Chris Duhon that Nate Robinson, all of 5-9, slammed home late in the first half electrified the Martin Luther King Day matinee crowd Monday at the Garden, but it was his drives bridging the third and fourth quarters that sparked the Knicks when they needed it most in a 99-91 win over the Pistons.
Robinson scored 27 points in 33 minutes off the bench and was a key to the ninth win in the last 12 home games for the Knicks, but what everyone wanted to talk about afterward was the news that he will be back to defend his Slam Dunk title at All-Star Weekend next month in Dallas.
So it goes for one of the league's most popular characters, whose dunk legacy might always overshadow his game.
"I'm an all-around player, but it's cool because you never forget the guys who won the dunk contest," Robinson said. "Ever since I was little, Spud Webb has always been in my mind, no matter what . . . So it's pretty cool to be labeled as one of the best dunkers ever."
He also has proved himself to be one of the league's most explosive scorers on a given night. His 27 points is his highest total since he scored 41 against the Hawks on Jan. 1, which was his first action since being benched for 14 games. He has averaged 15.9 points and 3.3 assists in nine games since his return, shooting 57-for-113 from the field and 19-for-44 from three-point range.
Wilson Chandler and reserve Al Harrington had 17 points each, Danilo Gallinari added 16 and David Lee had 11 points, 15 rebounds and five assists for the Knicks (17-24). Rodney Stuckey had 22 points for Detroit (14-26).
The Knicks took a 13-point lead with 8:43 left in the third quarter on Gallinari's three-pointer before the offense suddenly went cold. The Pistons reeled off a 19-2 run to take a 68-64 lead with 2:45 left in the quarter. The Knicks scored only 11 points in the third, four by Robinson in the final 2:22.
He then had a steal and a layup on the first possession of the fourth to tie the score at 70. Robinson drilled a three-pointer with 10:53 left to put the Knicks ahead 75-70. He scored only three more points the rest of the game, but it was a three-pointer with 5:46 left that put the Knicks ahead 88-78.
D'Antoni kept an ineffective Duhon (scoreless, five assists, four turnovers in 19:44) on the bench for most of the second half and went with Robinson in the backcourt, but he had most of the offense go through Lee (23 assists in his past three games).
Robinson can benefit from playing with forwards who can pass. In fact, he's already looking for an assist from Gallinari in the dunk contest. Gallinari is expected to get an invitation to the Saturday showcase as a sophomore selection for the Rookie Challenge (to be announced Jan. 27) and the Three-Point Shootout (to be announced Feb. 3). "He better go," Robinson said. If not, there's always Lee, who could be among the All-Star reserves, who will be announced Jan. 28.
Robinson will go for an unprecedented third title against Gerald Wallace (Bobcats), Shannon Brown (Lakers) and the winner of a first-ever dunk-off between Eric Gordon (Clippers) and DeMar DeRozan (Raptors).
"I know people are probably getting sick of seeing me dunk," Robinson said. "But they said the champion's got to go back. If I don't win it, it would be good because I don't want to go back anymore. But if I do, they want me to go back again, I guess so. Keep going until I lose."