Early in Cliff Robinson's NBA career, Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson developed what was considered the definitive defensive strategy against a player who was once considered one of the more selfish gunners in the league.
Whenever the Bucks faced Robinson, then with the Cleveland Cavaliers, they would allow him to shoot uncontested for the first quarter of the game and with token resistance for the remainder of the half. By the end of the game, the Milwaukee players would double-team him virtually whenever he touched the ball, but Robinson would rarely pass, ultimately hurting his team.
It's fitting, then, that Nelson should be the one to point out the strides made by Robinson during his two seasons with the Washington Bullets. As he watched the forward score 23 points, grab 13 rebounds and pass off for seven assists in a 105-103 loss to the Bulls last Friday in Chicago, Nelson conceded that his earlier approach to Robinson had been rendered obsolete.
"He's really become a complete player," said Nelson. "You can't double-team him anymore because he knows how to hit the open man. He's more aware of what's going on out on the floor and working harder at the game."
There is another bit of tangible evidence to illustrate Robinson's advances. Before joining the Bullets before the 1984-85 season, Robinson -- who entered the NBA at age 19 -- had never participated in postseason play. In Washington's 3-1 opening-round loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last April, he averaged 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds. Going into this season's playoff rematch, Robinson has emerged as the team's predominant inside force.
Robinson was Washington's second-leading scorer and rebounder with averages of 18.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, respectively. In the last 59 games of the regular season, his averages were 19.7 points and 9.3 rebounds; in the final six contests, 25.8 and 11.
"He was a talented player from the very first time I saw him," said Washington Coach Kevin Loughery, who was Robinson's first professional coach, with the New Jersey Nets. "Now every facet of his game has improved. The range on his shot is better, but what I see most is his defense. That mainly shows concentration and hard work."
Robinson's 98 steals this season were a career high and led the Bullets. He says his improved statistics were just part of an overall maturation process.
"I think I've come a long way, mainly because of the experiences I've had, the added maturity," he said. "In the NBA there's not a lot of teaching going on. You're getting paid to go out there and be great right away, but there were so many things I needed to learn. I can remember my first year -- Kevin wanted me to do certain things, but it seemed there was never enough time to learn them."
And when he didn't, Robinson, now 26, merely tried to rely on the physical gifts that allowed him to leave the University of Southern California after a pair of seasons in which he averaged 18 points per game. He had a soft touch for a man 6 feet 9 and 245 pounds and performed athletic feats rarely seen by a man his size. That also made him very attractive to other teams. Between the end of the 1980-81 season and his 1984-85 debut with Washington, Robinson was traded three times.
Still, the prevailing attitude around the league wasn't that Robinson was a desirable player but, rather, just the opposite. It also was a rap Loughery thought was unfair.
"All the moving around didn't help him, and the fact that the teams he was traded to weren't very good hurt him, too. We the Nets weren't very good when we traded him," he said. "He feels comfortable here, and that's been part of his development."
Another factor has been Robinson's improved passing. Long a consistent double-figure performer in points and rebounds, Robinson achieved the first triple double -- double figures in points, rebounds and assists -- of his career this season against the New York Knicks.
"I think I know the opposition better. I've studied more," he said. "Before, when I got the ball on the low post I'd turn and shoot. Now I look at the options: I can lead the defense one way or another by passing or faking a pass before going into my move. I can drop step or go into the lane and shoot a hook. Those are things I had to learn that other guys learned by staying in college."
On occasion this year, Robinson, like many of his teammates, lapsed into a one-on-one mode, perhaps understandable given former Coach Gene Shue's penchant for isolation-oriented offense. That such tactics have grown largely unnecessary is a tribute to a more balanced offense by Washington, a situation that Robinson hopes will continue in the playoffs.
"If no one else is really on their game and I'm hot, I'll try to stretch it out for as long as I can until someone else picks it up," he said. "Or if, say, Jeff Malone is really hot, I'll just try to rebound and set better picks so it's easier for him to get his shot off. Then if he cools down, I try to come on.
"I think that's how it's worked for most of the year, and I think that's the best way. I don't want to go into the playoffs thinking that I have to do this or do that. I just want to play hard and play smart and let the rest take care of itself."