On Friday Andrew Wiggins scored 35 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
On Sunday he ran into Wesley Matthews.
Last year’s No. 1 pick and Rookie of the Year has been excellent this season, but Matthews wasn’t about to allow him to score 30 for the second game in a row. Instead, Matthews limited Wiggins to 21 points on just 8-of-19 shooting. As strong a performance as that is, it’s even a bit misleading: Wiggins hit his final four shots of the game, and they all came in transition or on putbacks so Matthews wasn’t defending him. Otherwise, Minnesota’s young star shot just 4 of 15 from the field, thanks in large part to Matthews.
It’s been impressive watching Matthews match up with some of the league’s best and brightest stars in his first year with the Mavs. The 2-guard doesn’t always have the athletic edge, and rarely does he have a size advantage, and yet he still claims a new victim nearly every night. This season, opponents are shooting 43.8 percent from the field when Matthews is the closest defender, according to SportVU, and they are shooting just 32.5 percent on shots from further than 15 feet when he guards them — that’s 5.0 percentage points worse than those same players average on the season, according to NBA.com. Only one wing player — Sacramento’s Rudy Gay — has scored 30+ against the Mavericks this season. That’s it.
So how does he do it? If he’s guarding bigger guys who can jump higher and move faster — Wiggins is 6-foot-8 with a 44-inch vertical leap and a 7-foot wingspan — how is Matthews always making life difficult for some of the league’s most skilled players? While Matthews is no athletic slouch himself, the answer — a combination of veteran savvy and toughness — has perplexed his opponents all season long.
While many players in the NBA only play committed defense when their man has the ball in his hands, Matthews checks his man for 24 seconds every time down no matter who has the ball. That makes his opponent work harder just to make the catch, let alone shoot.
Don’t be mistaken, either: Although NBA players are world-class athletes, making them work this hard on every possession will wear them down throughout the course of a game. In the example above, once Wiggins does make the catch, he’s so discombobulated and off-balance that his shot falls well short. Score one for Matthews.
Matthews is excellent at fighting through screens, as he has the awareness to identify when one is coming and the quickness to step over or underneath it to stay engaged to the play. He also has a knack for knowing exactly when his opponent will rise for a shot, and he’s able to beat them to their spot.
That little half-step forward Matthews takes as Wiggins gathers himself before the jumper eliminates all space between the two. The Wolves’ young wing has no breathing room as he takes his jumper. Matthews has held opponents to just 39.1 percent shooting coming off screens this season.
Matthews has guarded every position from point guard to power forward this season, and he’s had to do a great deal of defending in the post. With his sturdy frame, he’s able to maintain his position even while being backed down by bigger players.
This play is a testament to Matthews’ core strength. Not only is Wiggins’ back-down attempt unsuccessful, but the Mavs’ prized 2-guard even pushes him further back from the rim as he attempts to take a shot. Wiggins’ fadeaway ends up as more of a fall-back shot, and it only scrapes the front of the rim. Matthews did a tremendous job of keeping his hips squared and his core attached to Wiggins’ inside hip, perhaps knowing that he’d be shooting over that shoulder.
And you’d better be careful with the ball when you’re backing him down or trying to beat him off the dribble, because he’s more than capable of stripping it away.
If you’re driving against Matthews, he’ll funnel you to the closest defender.
This is another example of Matthews defending with his body and with his feet — not with his hands, as many players are wont to do when they fear being beat off the bounce. Matthews remains in a defensive stance and slides alongside Wiggins, all the while pushing the Wolves’ youngster right into Zaza Pachulia, who’s there to contest the shot. Together, those two players make up one of the more physical defensive duos in the NBA. Neither of them will back down, and neither will be pushed around.
Matthews isn’t going to make dramatic chase-down blocks in transition like LeBron James, and he’s not going to lead the league in steals. But what he will do as a defender — and what he has already done for months as a Maverick — is make his opponent’s life difficult. Matthews makes his man work for everything: getting open, the catch, the shot, the drive. Nothing comes easy for anyone when Matthews is in the house, and that’s a big reason why the Mavs are where they are in the standings so far this season.
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