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Knicks' Little Nate always knew he would soar

How did the shortest guy in the NBA suddenly become Mr. Big? How in the world did 5-9 Nate Robinson become the giant figure to replace LeBron James on the Nike billboard that towers over 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue? How did his jersey become the one that nearly every kid in Madison Square Garden is wearing?

The easy answer, of course, is the NBA Dunk contest. Because since his title-clinching slam last month in Phoenix, when he vaulted over 6-11 Magic center Dwight Howard, the sky has been the limit for Robinson.

Yet what has happened to Robinson is more than just one dramatic, flashy dunk. What has happened is that the size of his game is starting to catch up to the size of his head. Since All-Star weekend, Robinson is finally playing like the star he always believed he would be.

Robinson, who is 10 inches shorter than the average NBA player, always has believed he was destined for the big time. I figured this out while covering his first preseason game in 2005. Robinson nearly gave then-coach Larry Brown a coronary when on his first breakaway, he tried to throw a pass off the backboard to himself so he could dunk it. (He missed the dunk, and instead fell, banging his elbow.)

"I just had to get it out of my system," he declared after that game. "That's who I am."

Since then, Robinson has believed he's destined to be a star. Now that he has been paired with a like-minded coach, he is playing like one. And the rest of the league is noticing.

"He's at another level," the Nets' Jarvis Hayes said last night. "He's developed. He's a freak. When you look at some freaks in this league, you can say LeBron is a freak. And I'll put Nate in the category as a freak. His stature and the way he gets to the hole and makes shots and makes plays, it's just really uncanny."

Like the rest of the Knicks in the ugly 115-89 loss, Robinson did not have his best game last night. He scored only 18 points and seemed to be without his trademark frantic energy.

"I just thought early he was in a fog," coach Mike D'Antoni said.

It was one of the few recent disappointments Robinson has had. Heading into last night's game, he was averaging 25.8 points in 13 games since the All-Star break. That put him in some pretty heady company, because the only players who were averaging more this season are Dwyane Wade, James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.

Yet one player who wasn't in that group stole the show at the Garden. Vince Carter, who had 17 points in the second quarter, gave everyone on the court a tutorial in how a superstar can take over a game. The Nets, without injured point guard Devin Harris, needed someone to step up and take control. And that's exactly what Carter did.

There are times where Robinson has stepped up big this season - his 41 points against Indiana Feb. 23 is probably the best example - but he has yet to become a guy like Carter who can be counted upon to carry a team when he is really needed.

There's a lot of people out there who can identify with Robinson, an ordinary-sized man trying to be a star among giants, which may be the real reason for the rising Robinson fever. D'Antoni believes all the attention will be a positive for Robinson, but he also believes it could be a negative if he lets it.

"It's like getting a big contract. It can motivate you more, or take you down the wrong road," D'Antoni said. "It could motivate him, calm him down more and help him be a steady, great player."

D'Antoni paused. "Or he could say, 'Look who I am,' and go crazy."

Time will tell.

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