The Trail Blazers clinched the 6th seed in the Western Conference playoffs by virtue of beating the Memphis Grizzlies 102-89 Tuesday night. That's all fine and good, but we still don't know where we're going or who we'll be playing when the 2011 NBA Playoffs begin this weekend.
But on Tuesday night, something happened that could up being more important to Portland's playoff fortunes than finding out who the opponent is eventually going to be. Rudy Fernandez, who has been suffering through the worst shooting slump of his career, finally found his range from the 3-point line. After going a combined 2-of-22 (that's a whopping 9 percent shooting for you wicked smart kids out there) over the past six games from beyond the arc, Rudy came up big against the Grizzlies, making 4-of-5 three-pointers to finish the night with 18 much-needed points off the bench.
"I keep shooting," said Fernandez, who averaged four 3-point attempts a game over the last month despite being decidedly off-target. "Don't feel good, don't feel good and this is the same for shooters. I have to have strong mentality. Right now, the last games in the regular season, I have to be strong right now in the playoffs. So for sure today helps me a lot, take confidence in my shot and it's very good."
Fernandez snapping out of his slump, if that is indeed what happened Tuesday night at the Rose Garden, couldn't have come at a better time for the Trail Blazers. With only a few days and a meaningless game against the Golden State Warriors standing between the Trail Blazers and a 7-game series against either the Lakers, Mavericks or Thunder, there's no time that is too soon to get Rudy's new three goggles prescription updated.
"Absolutely it's the perfect time (to shoot better)," said Fernandez. "The last three games probably I don't feel good with my shot. More mentally probably because sometimes when you miss a lot of shots, you're thinking about it. Right now today I feel good with my shot. My teammates help me out a lot."
And Rudy's making shots, in turn, helps his teammates out. A lot. Fernandez, when he's on his game, serves primarily two purposes in Nate McMillan's offense. He provides a spark off the bench, which is paramount now that McMillan has trimmed his rotation down to just eight players. But his ability to keep defenders honest with the long ball is far and away Rudy's most important attribute on a Trail Blazers team that is in the bottom third of the league when it comes to 3-point percentage.
"When (Fernandez) is attacking the basket, getting to the free throw line, making plays, whether he’s stealing the ball or making an assist, certainly when he’s knocking his three, he becomes a weapon out there that teams have to defend and play," said Nate McMillan. "He certainly spreads the floor with his ability to knock down some shots. So even though he hasn’t been knocking down shots, teams still respect him and they guard him. When he’s playing with LaMarcus, he keeps the defense off of L.A. a lot of times.”
When Rudy can draw enough attention from opposing defenses, it limits the way said defenses can play the Trail Blazers. We've seen some teams have success against Portland by packing in the paint, daring Fernandez and the other Trail Blazers guards to hit an outside shot. That dare has paid off all too well recently, but if Fernandez can shoot come playoff time as well as he did Tuesday night, it won't matter who the Trail Blazers square off with in the 3-6 matchup.
"I'm so happy to play good tonight, feel good with my shot," said Fernandez. "This is very important for me to stay confident right now. The playoff is starting, so it is for me very comfortable. Right now I feel good."
As did everyone leaving the Rose Garden Tuesday night. Fans will probably remember Tuesday night's game because the Trail Blazers finally clinched, but Rudy letting go might end up being the more important event.