Ode to Wesley Matthews' Defense

It struck me recently that loads of praise has been getting heaped on Lillard, Batum, and Aldridge; our “Big Three” starters, according to T Darkstar, who all probably boast being in the top ten in their respective positions within this league. I cannot help but notice that in all of this, Wesley Matthews has been largely left out of these conversations, as if he is not part of the “core.”

Whether such a sentiment actually exists, I am wholly opposed it. For me, Wes is a critical piece to this team’s success, and although I am not against trading him if it means we get things fixed at the (arguably) more-critical center position, I emphatically maintain that Wes is as much a “core” player as both Lillard and Batum. We just don’t realize it because Wesley’s most important contributions do not show up in a box score or highlight reel, and they don’t take the form of game-winning shots.

Wesley Matthews plays defense. Not your grandma’s namby-pamby soft touchy feely kind. Not the idiotic foul-machine kind either. Wes plays physical, precise, gritty, intelligent, brilliant man-to-man defense. If you ask me, to the extent guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Chris Paul are brilliant at making terrific offensive plays with the ball, Wesley is equally brilliant at defending against the league’s best playmakers. This is especially true in high-pressure, clutch situations.

Great perimeter defense doesn't typically show up in a stat box highlight reel. And so, below is a chronicle of fantastic defensive efforts that I have watched Wes Matthews make. Not all of these efforts have ended up in a win, but every single one gave the Blazers a good chance at winning, and many have in fact ended up in wins. I welcome comments from anyone wishing to correct any inaccuracies.

March 25, 2011; vs. Spurs. Blazers win, 98 – 96. Many of you will remember this game as Nicolas Batum’s alley-oop game-winner from Andre Miller with 0.9 seconds left. What you may not remember was the play that immediately preceded Batum’s brilliant shot. Manu Ginobili, the Spurs’ go-to guy in late-game situations, got the ball at the top of the key with 14 seconds left in a tie ball game. He let the clock run, and as he started his move, Wesley anticipated Manu’s movement pattern and took what looked like one of the easiest steals you’ll ever see. He straight-up robbed the man blind like taking candy from a baby. Although the Blazers couldn’t finish on the break, Matthews’ steal played the critical role in setting the table for the Miller-Batum connection that stole the show that night.

February 16, 2012; vs. Clippers. Blazers lose, 71 – 74. Chris Paul is probably the league’s most-clutch player. He boasts a remarkable shooting percentage in late-close-game situations. So, would it surprise you to know that on this night, he spent almost the entire fourth quarter stifled by Wesley Matthews? During the fourth quarter, Wes was all over Paul, forcing repeated turnovers and missed shots. The Blazers, who could not mount ANY offense, were barely hanging on to a one-possession lead—almost entirely thanks to Wesley’s handling of Chris Paul. At around the 2-minute mark, Wes knocked the ball loose from Chris Paul’s handle and dove to the floor to recover the ball. He called a timeout in a knick of time. Fantastic play, right? After a timeout, Nate subbed in Felton for Matthews for one offensive and one defensive possession, which was all it took for Paul to force a turnover and own Felton at the other end of the floor. Nate immediately subbed Wes back in, but the lead was gone at that point, and that’s when offense becomes an absolute must. Despite the loss, Wesley played amazing defense that game on one of the league’s most un-guardable players, and I was shocked at the difference a single player could make for even a single possession.

November 3, 2012; vs. Rockets. Blazers win in overtime. Remember how James Harden started the season out averaging like, 35 points per game? I remember shaking in my boots going into this game, thinking that he was going to explode on the Blazers. I also remember Damian Lillard being sensational in overtime. If you will recall, the Blazers were down by 3 with 1 minute left in the 4th. Can you recall who hit the game-tying shot? Wesley Matthews, that’s who. The Rockets held for the final possession, putting the ball in Harden’s hands. The result? Wesley stripped him going up for the three-point shot, preserving the tie and setting the table for Lillard’s overtime performance.

January 4, 2013; vs. Grizzlies. Blazers win a one-possession game. Wesley Matthews forced a miss by Rudy Gay with 22 seconds left. Gay herked, jerked, spun, lifted, leaned, and tried every move he had but couldn’t get it down with Wes in his grill. Oh yeah, and Rudy had dominated Batum for the whole first half of that game.

January 10, 2013; vs. Heat. Blazers win another nail biter. LeBron James had scored over twenty points for (I believe) 55 straight games until meeting Wesley Matthews on this night, when The King was held to 15. Even during the game’s closing seconds, Wesley was all over the league’s best playmaker, forcing the ball out of his hands—and indirectly causing Mario Chalmers to take (and miss) the last shot. I was extremely surprised at Stotts’ willingness to let Wes guard the much larger James. Of course, it paid dividends.

January 13, 2013; vs. OKC. Blazers lose 83-87. Remember how Kevin Durant began to control Nic Batum’s mind in the fourth quarter? He looked completely unstoppable. Did you forget how Stotts put Matthews on Durant with about 3 minutes left and the Blazers down by 10? Durant subsequently came up short with turnovers and misses on about four straight possessions—all of them guarded in single-coverage by Matthews. The Blazers couldn’t find the offense to win, but it seemed pretty clear that Wes put them in such a position that if the offense were there, they would have taken that game.

I can’t think off the top of my head of any more instances of this kind of play by Wes, but if you can, I would love to hear about it. I know that he gave Kobe and Melo fits in the playoffs as a rookie with the Jazz.

The reason I think that Wes is an unquestionable member of this core is because defense plays a critical role in this game, and yet, great defense doesn’t really show up in the box score and is seldom on the highlight reel. More subtly, defensive specialists do not receive the accolades and salaries that their gifted offensive specialist counterparts command. We will never have to pay through the nose to keep Wesley Matthews, but the contributions he makes will consistently exceed the contributions his salary would ordinarily demand. A good comparison, I think, is Shane Battier. Battier is another defensive specialist who, over the years, has made every one of his teams far better with his ability to put great players, like Kobe Bryant, into their least favorite spots on the court.

So there you have it. I think Wesley Matthews is an amazing basketball player and a real student of the game. He is unquestionably a starter at shooting guard and while his offensive stats may not call for it, I believe he could probably also be considered a “top ten” at his position in this league because of the way he plays D.

So thanks for reading through my “Ode.” Wesley Matthews deserves our love and praise as much as anyone on this team. Oh and screw “tanking.” Blazers for the win. Always.

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