The scene in the Trail Blazers' locker room prior to the game against the Clippers was typically sparse. A couple ball boys scurried around carrying out various errands and Nicolas Batum sitting at his locker reading the scouting report. Other than that, ghost town.
Then Rudy Fernandez showed up.
It wasn't the Rudy that I was expecting to see. The Rudy I was expecting had a sore knee and an even sorer back. He had dove into the Kings bench late in the fourth quarter the night before in Sacramento
, his hustle earning the Trail Blazers another possession. The maneuver also earned the Spaniard another back spasm.
So that, along with his tweet to Patty Mills
earlier in the day that he was "feeling like my grandfather," led me to believe the Rudy I would see in the locker room would be the stiff, grimacing Rudy i observed prior to the game against the Nets on Jan. 15
. That Rudy was visibly hobbled as he sat and watched his teammates warmup. And that Rudy played 22 minutes, went 1-for-7 from the field and missed all four of his three-pointers.
But the Rudy that strolled through the mostly barren locker room looked nothing like a grandfather or an invalid. This Rudy was clapping and singing along to a Juan Luis Guerra track that could be heard blaring through the earbuds of his Ipod. He sat down at his locker and continued to move and clap in rhythm with the Latin beat, which at this point had drawn a mocking ire from the quiet and reserved Batum, who threw a pack of gum and a sock in an attempt to shut the Spaniard up, but to no avail.
(Batum also momentarily considered throwing a protein shake, which would have surely served as an endgame, though he eventually thought better of if, possibly because I shook my head furiously when he looked to me for advice.)
On this night, Rudy was feeling it. His back felt good despite having played 28 minutes the night before. He was happy, perhaps partially due to his mother's home cooking, which he has been enjoying on an almost daily basis during her extended holiday visit.
But the most likely reason for Fernandez's exuberance on this night was less specific. Basically, he's just happy because he's happy; he doesn't need a specific reason to feel good anymore. It's now the rule, rather than the exception.
"Right now I feel happy," said Fernandez. "I feel happy on the court and off the court, you know? I think it's important for me. My mom is in town; this is important for me too. But the teammates is great to me. They help me in the transition, in the bad moment, the worst moments in my career. I think right now I enjoy and I'm happy. This is why I singing in the locker room Spanish music. I am happy."
And it's translating to his play on the court. The timid, contact-averse Fernandez we've seen at various times throughout his career in Portland has now been replaced, at least more often than not, with a player who is self-assured and creative and, most importantly, enjoying himself and the company of his teammates.
"I feel happy, enjoy the game," said Rudy. "The coach trust me in new plays, new role. I think it's important. Important for me to stay happy, stay healthy too. I enjoy. This is important for me. This is a big change for my role and for my play."
Against the Clippers, Rudy played the role of frenetic energy-provider, a role he played well. He shot 7-for-10 from the field, with only two of those shots coming from beyond the arc, of which he made one. He finally found the touch on his running floater, a shot he refers to as "la bomba" and he twice hit Andre Miller cutting to the basket for their low-flying version of the alley-oop, a play that is becoming as much of a staple of the Portland offense as the Camby-to-Aldridge high-low's we've seen regularly this season.
"It's tough play for the defenders because they don't expect it," said Fernandez, "and Dre is probably looking at me with eyes, eyes contact and I throw him the ball."
But in a game with numerous Fernandez highlights, including a floating hook to beat the shot clock
that he later dismissed as "a lucky shot," the play people will remember
-- a steal, leading to a fastbreak leading to a turnover, leading to a steal leading to a layin -- was so quintessentially Rudy that it could have only occurred on a night Fernandez started by clapping and singing and gyrating to the beat of his native language.
"I steal the ball, it's two-on-two," said Fernandez of the play. "We have luck in this play too, but when you play with aggressive, sometimes the lucky plays is because of you."