On Playoff Experience

April, 27, 2009
4/27/09
11:11
AM ET

Late in the third quarter of last night's Rockets vs. Blazers game, Houston inbounded the ball to Von Wafer.

Wafer was a Blazer briefly last season, before being let go. Now he's a Rocket, the keeper of a terrible mohawk (which also seems to have affected a Houston ballboy -- anyone else notice that?) and a terrible thorn in Portland's side with his deadeye shooting and relentless enthusiasm.

Wafer caught the ball with some space, rose to shoot and ... missed badly.

Rudy FernandezThen he had a meltdown. Just flailing his arms around in a tizzy, not unlike a toddler in the cereal aisle, screaming about some kind of offense.

He then grabbed his elbow, to show the referees more specifically what they had done wrong.

I hadn't seen the play all that closely, and now the game had moved to the other end of the court. But seeing Wafer so mad about that particular offense -- either he was lying, or somebody had enacted that craftiest of NBA moves, to nudge a shooter's elbow -- I suddenly knew precisely what had happened.

I would have bet the person on the next barstool, but I was watching alone at home, so I made a bet with myself: Ten bucks says he was fouled on the elbow, and he was fouled by Rudy Fernandez.

It was a bold call. Frankly, at that point I had just entered the room and wasn't even certain Fernandez was in the game. But a little rewinding and slow-playback revealed that as Wafer caught the ball and rose to fire, Fernandez scrambled to close the space. Unable to reach as high as the ball, he waved a hand in front of Wafer, and, almost certainly, into his shooting elbow.

I owe myself ten bucks.

Now, how did I know it was Fernandez?

One reason is because he's always doing weird stuff. Just always trying something, always thinking, always working little angles. I wholly recommend taking ten minutes to watch only him at both ends of the court. Even when he's standing still he's trying something.

But the bigger reason I knew that was Fernandez was because it was a risky thing to do, and he's the one Blazer who has his risk-o-meter set to "playoffs."

Before the Blazers played their first playoff game, there was a group of voices out there betting against Portland simply because of their lack of playoff experience. I still don't know if I buy it -- their three losses have come to a very good Houston team, and two of them have been exceptionally close  -- but that rationale is looking smarter than ever. (Also, history shows that while young teams that make the playoffs don't fare as well, young teams with good regular season records do fine.)

The Blazers have played big portions of this playoff series trying to be safe. Not going for the steal. Not throwing the lob. Not fouling.

The playoffs, however, are a bit like a frontier town when the sheriff is on vacation. Predator's delight.

Fernandez, to my eyes, is the Blazer who walks that walk most comfortably. A lot of Portland's fans (egged on, dare I say, by their local broadcasters) lament things like how Ron Artest or Yao Ming get to hit Brandon Roy's arms.

But I suspect Fernandez sees all that and thinks: We get to hit arms! Cool!

It's not just a matter of fouling. It's also about taking risks in all aspects of the game. To me the signature move of the Blazers' playoff experience so far is the passed up open jumper. LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake ... just about every Blazer has had moments of overt openness -- the gift of a methodical and disciplined offense that was the NBA's second most efficient in the regular season. Even the most disciplined systems still count on shooters shooting at some point or another. Instead of firing away, they have often waited or faked long enough for the defense to catch up, only to move the ball on down the line for what will most likely be a tougher shot with more pressure from the defense and the shot clock.

So, why is it Fernandez knows this already? A lot of people would point out that he has been here before, having played in countless huge games in his elite European career. And it's not hard to see how that could work: If the Blazers lose this series, and spend a summer stewing about a matchup they knew they could have won, how could they not bring a certain edge to the playoffs next year?

I don't buy that playoff experience is the only way to succeed in this environment (Exhibit A: Chris Paul's first playoff games). Teaching is the idea that trial and error is not the only way to learn things. And the Blazers have learned from their mistakes all season long -- the question is how fast those lessons can be internalized and enacted. It's not exactly "now or never," but it sure is "now or not this year."

Down three games to one, widely expected to lose the series, playing at home in Game 5, and maybe trying on the idea that a summer of regret could be starting soon, I suspect the Blazers won't be so cautious Tuesday night. If it's bombs away, the shift in attitude would unleash more of Portland's talent.

And if they don't ... at least the Blazers are gaining some great playoff experience.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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