When Al Harrington is asked how his health is heading into a playoff series against the guaranteed-to-be-physical Chicago Bulls, the veteran replies: “Good. I mean, as good as it’s going to get at this point.”
“Do you feel 34?”
“Today, yes, I feel 34,” Harrington, who is in his 16th year, said Friday after practice by telephone. “Sometimes I feel 54. Depends on the day.”
Everyone crunches numbers, names and matchups differently this time of year.
If you believe in Chicago, you know that Tom Thibodeau takes lottery-bound rosters and gets them to win Game 7s on the road. You know that Washington is pretty much a postseason neophyte going up against a battle-tested Bulls roster.
But there is still only one pertinent stat for me in the playoffs, one number that often separates the survivors from the one-and-dones. I call it “The Old Head Stat.”
Everything being equal, if more over-30 players in your regular rotation have played in more playoff games, chances are you are going to the next round. (Unless you are Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who are now officially carbon-dated.)
I’ve seen this phenomenon play out. The reason Shaq and Kobe got over the top in 2000 wasn’t because they lit up Portland. No, Brian Shaw, Ron Harper and other veterans helped them recover from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter against Portland in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, saving their stars’ behinds.
The reason the Knicks shocked the Heat in 1998 was because Buck Williams, Terry Cummings and Charles Oakley outwilled younger, mentally weaker opponents in a decisive Game 5.
Robert Horry earned San Antonio a title with a monstrous three-pointer against the Pistons on their court in Game 5 of the 2005 Finals. Without Steve Kerr or John Paxson in a pinch, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen don’t have six rings.
Behind every 10-time all-star advancing in April or May is often a graying vet, squaring up for the win as if it were his team.
Now, of the Old Head Bulls who average at least 10 minutes per game, Carlos Boozer has played in 78 postseason games by himself. But after Kirk Hinrich’s 50, there is Mike Dunleavy, with nine playoff appearances.
For all the guile and grit of Chicago, I still am taking the experience and scars of Washington’s over-30 crowd. While Nene and Boozer cancel each other out in the middle, the additions of Harrington, Gooden, Gortat and Miller were crucial in Washington returning to the playoff conversation for the first time since 2008 — and the deciding factor going into this series with the Bulls.
Anyone who watched the past two months saw Miller running a clinic at point guard at times. They saw Harrington and Gooden filling lanes, finding their spots. Frankly, they saw Gooden taking too many shots at the end of important games. But, hey, take the good with the old.
“Sometimes, we would be talking about what we were going to do to teams on the bench, like, ‘All right, if they pin down on the pick, I’ll pop out and you get it to me,’ ” Harrington said. “There were times when we were in the flow out there, hitting shots, playing strong D, where you start to feel 20 again. With me and Andre, it’s like I can feel a chemistry developing with him every night.”
The physical adjustment is huge as a player ages. But it’s the mental adjustment that always makes me marvel at players like Harrington.
He was the best high school player in America at 18, plucked from the NBA draft at that age by Indiana. By 21, he had blown out his knee. By 24, in his sixth season with the Pacers, he started just 15 games. By 28, his career already fell under the “journeyman” label; he was on his fourth team in 10 years.
The Wizards are his seventh team . Asked when he realized he wasn’t going to be that perennial NBA all-star, Harrington replied: “Honestly, this is probably the first year. I’m sure everybody realizes what their role on a team is at some point, but I’ve never stopped reaching for those goals. They always fueled me in the summer.
“Obviously, where I am now, I know it’s somebody else’s time. I have to fit in and find my niche. That’s the beauty of maturing in the game — you’re not going to be 21 forever. That doesn’t mean you don’t still have those moments where you can be that player in a spot.”
Gooden was once the fourth player selected in the NBA draft. Today he is 32, on his 10th team in 12 years, signed for the remainder of the season after finishing two 10-day contracts with the Wizards.
Miller almost single-handedly took his college team to the NCAA championship game in 1998. Twelve years ago, he averaged 16.5 points and nearly 11 assists per game . Today he is 38, on his seventh team in 14 years. He knows his role. Spell Wall for stretches, move the ball and get to the free-throw line when the defense cheats off him.
And yet, certain nights when Wall is dribbling too much or Beal is off, the music these veterans make together on the court is often the difference.
When you get to be Harrington’s age, you intuitively understand the best every NBA player can hope for is that he eventually grows old and retires. And before that happens, if you can still find the magic in your game on occasion — if all the muscle memory returns at the right time — no young buck is going to show you up in the defining minutes of a playoff series.
If inexperience is what Chicago is counting on against Washington, it must not have scoured the roster thoroughly enough to realize that age and old-‘baller knowledge is more on the Wizards’ side than anyone who hasn’t played in 234 playoff games can possibly comprehend.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.