Postgame: Wesley Matthews

Postgame: Wesley Matthews

The Mavs’ burgeoning 1-2 punch on the defensive end isn’t exactly an odd couple, but Wesley Matthews and Dorian Finney-Smith aren’t cut from the same cloth, either.

Matthews is one of the most intense competitors in the NBA. He’ll jaw a bit, too, if the situation calls for it. Every trip down the floor in the Mavs’ Saturday night game at Houston, Matthews would stretch his arms as wide as they would go, mouthpiece showing, eyes staring dead ahead at James Harden, almost as if to say “Come at me.”

Finney-Smith, meanwhile, can at times almost be invisible on the floor, until he comes out of nowhere to make a play. He barely speaks a word, at least publicly. And as much as he relishes the opportunity to defend stars, he hasn’t so openly challenged anyone quite in the same vein as the way Matthews did Harden.

“That’s my demeanor, that’s my personality,” Finney-Smith told Mavs.com after the Mavs’ 112-92 win against the Nuggets on Monday. “He’s more rah-rah, and I’m just kind of mellow. But I play hard. Everybody’s motivation is different.”

No matter what motivates Finney-Smith, the Mavs want to make sure the rookie continues to do whatever it is that he’s been doing to prepare for games. The Florida product has set career-high marks in scoring three times in his last six games, but the untold story of what’s made him such an unexpectedly productive player for the Mavericks this season is his remarkable understanding on the defensive end.

Finney-Smith and Matthews do share plenty in common. Both players went undrafted after playing all four seasons at big D-I programs, both take it personally when they get beat, and both have a fundamental appreciation for what it takes to be a good defender, a term which is thrown around a lot, but is tough to define. The 23-year-old rookie said he’s made it a point to be a sponge around his veteran teammate, looking to absorb any wisdom he can.

“Wes is a great guy for any young player to spend time with, because his mind is a computer when it comes to defense,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle said. “And offense, too. He’s a very smart player on offense. But defensively, he’s one of the very best.”

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Both players can dip into similar pools of motivation — they were undrafted, underappreciated, and they take pride on an end of the floor that many of their competitors discount or outright ignore. There is nothing flashy or sexy about playing good defense, whether you’re blocking shots or recording steals. And while Finney-Smith has blocked five shots in his last four games, neither he nor Matthews ever puts up gaudy “defensive stat” lines. They rarely pick pockets or send shots into the fifth row. They just bear down and make everything difficult for their opponent.

That quality has been especially impressive to see from Finney-Smith, who came out of college with a good reputation, but he spent much of his time at Florida defending college power forwards, who, no disrespect, don’t have the same ability as NBA-level wings. But the Mavs’ rookie has defended both 4s and 3s in the big leagues, most notable of which was a shockingly good performance last month against Bucks sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo in what were essentially Finney-Smith’s first meaningful NBA minutes.

“When you go from 4 to 3, it’s always harder,” Carlisle said. “You’re guarding guys with more-honed skill sets. They’re faster, they’re smaller, they attack more. Generally, they just have a different aptitude, just a different kind of aptitude for the game than guys that are inside banging. It’s much more challenging.”

As much as Finney-Smith wants to learn from Matthews, the mentor has already gained a strong appreciation for his student’s game.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Matthews said. “He’s coming over blocking shots above the rim, obviously his ability to guard perimeter players at multiple positions already this early. As he continues to learn his little tricks and get stronger and all that kind of stuff, he’ll be tough.”

A late-November slide in team defense carried into December for the Mavericks, culminating in a disappointing 120-89 home loss to Sacramento last week. During that time, Dallas has fallen to 23rd in the league in defensive rating, or points allowed per 100 possessions. Finney-Smith’s on-off splits have remained positive during that time, however. Just look at his on-court defensive numbers with each of the Mavs’ other four typical starters this season.

Lineup Minutes DefRtg NetRtg Opp. eFG%
Finney-Smith, Matthews 369 100.4 2.2 49.1
Finney-Smith, Barnes 361 96.1 3.8 48.9
Finney-Smith, Williams 180 96.9 0.1 46.5
Finney-Smith, Bogut 146 87.8 6.3 41.7

The numbers with center Andrew Bogut are particularly stunning. They’ve only shared 146 minutes on the floor together, but considering the way the Mavericks stagger their rotation, that adds up to about 10 games’ worth of minutes. To allow such a low volume of points over that much time is very impressive. (For the season, by the way, the Mavs’ averages in the above categories are 106.0, -6.6, and 53.6 percent.)

Generally, when one single player is on the floor in so many different good combinations, that says something about the player. And when looking at the Mavs’ best three-man groups involving Finney-Smith, that becomes even more evident. It doesn’t matter who he’s playing with: The Mavs have been a defensive force when he’s on the floor.

Lineup Minutes DefRtg NetRtg Opp. eFG%
Finney-Smith, Barnes, Matthews 312 94.5 6.5 47.4
Finney-Smith, Matthews, Williams 162 95.1 4.3 45.2
Finney-Smith, Barnes, Williams 151 93.8 6.4 45.2
Finney-Smith, Bogut, Matthews 136 86.5 11.2 41.2

That last combination has been incredible for the Mavericks in 136 minutes this season. And it makes sense that it would be the case, too. Bogut is a top-tier rim protector, Matthews is one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, and Finney-Smith can fill in anywhere else. If you need him to defend power forwards like Taj Gibson, he can. If you need him to defend Antetokounmpo or Harden, he can do that, too.

Having three such players in one lineup is a recipe for an elite defensive unit, which is what the Mavs have been in the relatively limited time those three have shared the floor. Throw Harrison Barnes and Williams into the mix, for what it’s worth, and that five-man group has an 87.8 defensive rating and 20.9 net rating in only 38 minutes together over six games.

But what exactly can a player like Finney-Smith learn from Matthews, especially when they’re not always defending the same types of players? For one thing, he’s taught Finney-Smith about the importance of showing your hands to avoid cheap fouls. But Carlisle said finer details have gone a long way toward helping.

“There are probably 10 different defensive situations that great defenders are dealing with constantly,” Carlisle said. “Mid pick-and-roll with a guy coming at you 100 miles an hour, guys coming out of the corner off multiple staggered screens, when you have to go over the top of him and when you can gap those slightly. There are a lot of subtle things.”

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As Finney-Smith’s aptitude has grown, so too has his coach’s confidence in him. He’s already started more games as an undrafted rookie than any Maverick as far back as Basketball-Reference’s database goes, and that’s while playing for a coach who historically rarely start rookies. That’s concrete evidence that Carlisle believes in him, and that matters more to the player than his own ability, to be sure.

“I know how to be in the right spots,” Finney-Smith told Mavs.com. “But (coach) will challenge me and put me on the best player on their team. For him, or the team, to have that much confidence in me, it just makes me want to go out there and play that hard.”

So you want to be on the opponent’s best player, eh? That might mean having to check Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and so on. Still up for the challenge?

“How can you not be excited to guard one of the best scorers, and one of the best players in the league?” the 23-year-old told Mavs.com. “I take it personal when I’m guarding them. I try to act like I don’t got help out there.”

If Finney-Smith is a sponge, consider him drenched with knowledge from those around him. The Mavs coaching staff constantly shows him film of the best defenders in systems resembling the one the team plays, which often means the rookie studies film of his own teammate, Matthews. With the combination of his talent and that many people not only on his side, but also planted firmly in his corner, the table is set for Finney-Smith to succeed at this level. Matthews, for one, will see to it that his rookie continues to improve, even if they aren’t identical.

“I see a lot of resemblance,” he said. “Just that hunger, just playing, not really thinking about the ins and outs of the league — not knowing the ins and outs of the league — but just knowing that it’s a basketball game, and leaving everything out there every single night. He’s growing, and he’s been a big bright spot for us this season.”

Finney-Smith has been a bright spot, to be sure, and in combination with Matthews, he might represent the Mavs’ best chance at going on a run to get them back into the playoff picture in the West.

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