Last year, tight games meant Portland looked for two things—Brandon Roy showing his other-worldly ability to penetrate virtually any defense, and Travis Outlaw going unconscious and hitting everything in sight.
With just these two options, Portland often struggled to score.
They were successful because Roy is so good. He could be the entire pre-game highlight reel package himself, with his clutch shots, incredible drives, and sometimes-stifling on-the-ball defense.
They would have won another five or six games easily if they had had better fourth-quarter options. Against the truly great defensive teams, they simply could not score down the stretch. A team such as San Antonio would throw Bruce Bowen on Roy while they doubled up on Outlaw, forcing Portland to scramble for hurried, contested shots.
Same with Phoenix, where Raja Bell would shut down Roy, double-teaming would take away Outlaw, and Portland would simply not be ready to deal.
Enter Rudy Fernandez. Everyone already knows he is clutch based on his Olympic exploits and his entire body of work in the Spanish League. Now they know it in the NBA, too.
This is a man with ice in his veins. But it's not just his calmness—he also gives Portland a third guy who can create a shot in a must-score situation. He can score on drives, he can score on threes, he is money at the line, and he is most definitely not afraid to take a key shot.
Case in point: Miami trailed 96-88 after Roy hit a jumper over Dwayne Wade with 3:37 to go, but then Portland started acting as if the game was over. They took their time, getting bad shots when they got any shot at all. Wade hit a pair of free throws and a jumper. Now it was a four-point game, and it looked like Portland might give this one back.
Fernandez took the ball, curled into the foul line, spun, and with a hand in his face hit a tough jumper. Boom, suddenly Portland had their confidence back.
Had he missed that, the thunderous Wade dunk over the Matador defense of Outlaw on the ensuing possession might have broken Portland's spirit. Instead, they ran their offense. Roy found Steve Blake in the corner for a wide-open three, and the game was over, even with a few ticks left on the clock.
Scoring is one thing. Ten Blazers scored in the game, including four in double figures. But there are times when scoring is tough—when it takes a certain mindset to be able to create and make the shot.
Dwayne Wade has that mindset, and it showed when Miami won their title in 2006. LeBron James has it and that is why the Cavaliers made the Finals. Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce have it, and we all know the Celtics and Lakers are the favorites to be in the Finals again.
Now Portland has three guys who have that. Who do you defend in the fourth quarter of a close game? Want to stick your lock-down defender on Roy and your second best on Outlaw?
Okay, let me introduce you to Fernandez. And mix and match those names? Pure poison. I would hate to be the coach trying to stop them.
All of which brings me to the main point. Portland is rightfully mentioned as one of the deepest teams in the League. They have 11 guys who either have proved in the past they are contributors or have shown it this year. But unlike some teams, among that depth is a world of scoring.
Guys like Nicolas Batum, Martell Webster, Steve Blake, Channing Frye, Greg Oden, and Sergio Rodriguez are all nice to have. On any given night, any one of those can drop 20 points on opponents.
But it is the LaMarcus Aldridge, Roy, Fernandez, and Outlaw group that really is the heart and soul of the team. They can drop 30 on you game after game for a week when they are going good.
Lots of teams can roll out seven or eight guys who can ball for 20-plus points on a given night, but very few teams have more than one who can do it consistently over a several-game stretch. That is one thing that makes Portland so scary—they are a team that may no longer be "on the rise" but already risen.
When the early season schedule was released, they looked like a team that could easily start 1-5. Instead, they ran .500 and built a lot of confidence. They then went on the road and knocked off a very good Orlando team.
Following that up, they went in and beat a Miami team riding a red-hot Dwayne Wade, a talented rookie in Michael Beasley, and some solid players who can play off them. The game showed the difference between a team like Portland and one like Miami.
There is a reason Miami is 4-4. At crunch time, Portland was able to throw out multiple scorers. More to the point, they were not afraid to put a rookie on the court in crunch time, because he is a rookie who delivers.
Miami, on the other hand, left Michael Beasley on the bench for the final 4:16 in favor of Chris Quinn. Beasley was the second-leading scorer for the Heat with 14.
Meanwhile, Portland had Roy, Fernandez, Outlaw, Blake, and Aldridge on the court, with only Blake failing to achieve double digits. More to the point, Outlaw and Fernandez are bench players who are good enough that Nate McMillan has the confidence to put them in the game in a clutch situation, and is not upset when Fernandez takes key shots.
This is not a knock on Beasley, who certainly looks like he will be an excellent pro and may even win Rookie of the Year. But the fact that Portland will start onw rookie (Nicolas Batum) and finish the game with another speaks volumes about how dangerous this team will be for years to come. They don't need big minutes from their starters, and that will matter at the end of the year.
Why is this important? Look at the stat lines:
Portland bench: 104.25 minutes, 47 points, 16 rebounds, and some clutch shots.
Miami Bench: 88.50, 26 points, 14 rebounds, and no clutch shots.
Portland was able to keep Roy slightly fresher than Wade for the end of the game, and that led to their win.
There are a lot of factors that go into winning. Game after game, Portland is showing they have those. They are also showing improvement. Instead of losing leads late, they are closing strong: 31-21 in the fourth quarter against Miami, 34-26 against Orlando, 28-23 against Minnesota (and 54-46 for the second half).
When teams have the talent to start fast, a bench that can bring them back or extend leads when needed, and learns to close out games—they are going to sport a gaudy record in the long run.
Look out world, Rudy Fernandez, Brandon Roy, and the Portland Trailblazers are here and are going to win more games than most teams this year.
So start the chant now. Rudy! Ruudy! Ruuudy! Ruuuudy!