The Miami Heat appeared headed toward another loss in the 2023 NBA Finals as the fourth quarter of Game 2 began. Miami was down eight points on the road against the Denver Nuggets, a place where no road team had won so far in these playoffs.
But in the fourth quarter, Duncan Robinson seemed to decide that the Heat would not lose this game. For most of the playoffs, the Heat’s savior has been Jimmy Butler, their boisterous star guard, who averaged 37.6 points and six rebounds in the first round against the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks. Butler consistently taunted and reminded the Bucks that they could not guard him – or even that he owned them – throughout that series.
Robinson, a forward known for his three-point shooting prowess, had struggled this season and, at points, was not playing much at all. On Sunday night, he scored all 10 of his points in the fourth quarter, mean-mugging and trash-talking the Nuggets defense in the process. Robinson’s best play came on a layup around the outstretched arms of the Nuggets forward Jeff Green, which prompted a Nuggets timeout and a viral flexing-mean-mugging celebration from Robinson.
“I surprised myself that I pulled one out,” Robinson said while laughing. He added: “That was not premeditated at all. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Truth be told, I don’t get a lot of moments in the season to break that one out, so when you get one, you’ve got to try to take advantage of it.”
It was the second time in recent days that Robinson went viral for taunting his opponents. In the Heat’s Game 7 win over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, he put a hand to his ear after making a three-pointer that silenced Boston’s raucous crowd.
The taunts have been uncharacteristic for Robinson, who is typically one of the more reserved players on a team known for being boastful and brash. But in the Heat’s last two wins, Robinson has become the Heat’s unlikely agitator, leading the Heat to even the series at 1-1 after two games in Denver. But for those who know Robinson, he is simply showing the world who he’s always been.
“People don’t realize whether we’re playing cards or ping pong or board games like he’s literally one of the most competitive people I know,” said Jay Shunnar, who was roommates with Robinson in College at the University of Michigan and a graduate assistant on the basketball team. “So I think when his emotion comes out, it doesn’t surprise me as much because I know it’s there in his mind, even though he doesn’t always show it.”
Robinson began his college career at Division III Williams College in 2013 before transferring to the University of Michigan. At Michigan, Robinson flourished as a three-point shooter and helped lead the team to a national championship appearance during his final season. Over his three years, Robinson’s coach, John Beilein, said he only remembered Robinson ever showboating once.
It was the Elite Eight in the 2018 men’s NCAA tournament, and Robinson made a three-pointer to give Michigan a ten-point lead with just over two minutes remaining. Robinson turned and looked at the Michigan bench, and Beilein waved and yelled for him to get back on defense. It was a moment that Beilein said was his favorite of Robinson’s career because “it was so unusual for him to do.”
“So these celebrations are new; these are new things,” Beilein said. “I’m not saying he didn’t have confidence before. I’m saying he’s never shown it like he is now. And it looks like he’s enjoying playing.”
Still, off the court, Robinson’s friends say he has always been this way.
With the Heat up 3-0 against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, many of Robinson’s friends went to Miami for Game 4 in case the Heat advanced to the finals. They taught Robinson how to play the card game Euchre, which is played with teams of two. They played until it was time for Robinson’s pregame nap.
After the Heat lost, Robinson urged his friends to play Euchre again that night, so they played, and played, until around 2:30 a.m., despite most of them having flights home early in the morning because Robinson didn’t want to stop. Throughout the game, Shunnar remembers Robinson scolding his playing partner for playing the wrong card even if they won.
The daily difficulty in navigating Robinson’s competitiveness, Shunnar said, is his unwillingness to receive compliments. When Shunnar or another friend in their group chat tells Robinson he played great, Robinson often responds by questioning why they didn’t think he was capable of playing that way. “It’s like that’s not what I’m saying, dude,’” Shunnar said while laughing. “He’ll be like pissed that we all are surprised he’s dribbling the ball in the paint.”
He continued: “So the celebrations don’t surprise us because we just know how competitive he is, like, you can’t say nothing to him. Like, if I say, ‘Man, you were awesome last night,’ he literally will text me, ‘Shut up.’ So yeah, that’s just who he is, man.”