Saturday night at American Airlines Center, the Mavs found themselves down four points at halftime, 52-48, against a Denver Nuggets team in the midst of a five-game losing streak. Denver had played the Spurs in San Antonio the night before, yet Dallas found itself getting outworked and outplayed by the tired team.
But something changed at halftime. It was a shift in attitude, in approach, and in intensity. And, tactically speaking, much of that had to do with Wesley Matthews.
Head coach Rick Carlisle moved Matthews to defend forward Danilo Gallinari, who had scored 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the first two quarters. The Mavs guard — with some help from his teammates — kept Gallinari in check in the second half, holding him scoreless on 0-of-7 shooting from the field. In fact, the Matthews-led defense nearly pitched a shutout in the third quarter, as Denver could only muster 5 points as a team, the lowest-scoring quarter by an opponent in Mavericks history.
As has been the case in many Mavericks wins this season, it all started with Matthews.
“We’ve had a spike of improvement in our defensive numbers, and Wes has been a significant part of that,” Carlisle said. “We he walked out there on opening night and guarded [Phoenix power forward Markieff Morris], that sent a real message to our team that he meant business and that we were beginning a new era as a team in terms of our attitude.”
The word “attitude” typically has a negative connotation as it relates to a player’s approach to the game. But that couldn’t be further from the truth with a player like Matthews, whose attitude is anything but negative. He’s a player who sacrifices on the defensive end of the floor so that his team can succeed, while still carrying a large offensive load. He plays with an aggression and level of intensity that we haven’t seen in Dallas in some time, and Carlisle gives him credit for setting the tone on that end of the floor for the entire team.
“I feel like I have to, and I embrace that,” Matthews said. “I think when I do it, it gets everybody else going. It gets the mojo going. It gets the flow going of the game, and it’s an added pressure to me. And I like that.”
NBA superstars usually look to set the tone on the offensive end. We hear all the time about players taking on a huge burden in terms of shooting and playmaking, which is certainly a very difficult job that comes with its own pressure and level of expectation. Matthews is attempting 12.9 field goal attempts per 36 minutes, his lowest mark since the 2012-13 season. But on the defensive end, he’s guarded every position from point guard to power forward. You can find him checking the opponent’s best player, no matter what position he might be.
He’s become the Mavs’ go-to stopper, and the numbers reflect that. According to NBA.com, Matthews is holding his opponents to 40.0 percent from the field this season, 1.9 percentage points below those players’ collective average. On 2-pointers, he’s holding them to 43.3 percent, 2.6 percentage points below their season averages.
As a team, Dallas has already held opponents below 100 points nine times in just 17 games, including holding both San Antonio and Denver below 90 in back-to-back contests. That means that, more than half the time, the other team hasn’t reached triple-digits. Last season, Dallas only kept its opponent below 100 points 30 times, according to Basketball-Reference. The Mavs are 8-1 this season when their opponent can’t crack 100.
Not only is Matthews guarding the best player every night, but he’s winning that battle more often than not, which has obviously played a huge role in the team’s defensive success. That’s become a point of pride for the 2-guard.
“That’s always been a part of my DNA,” he said. “Before I got here, before I got to the NBA, I was taught by my mom to guard the best player every single night and not let him score. Obviously I’m not gonna hold someone 0-for, but I’m gonna try and make it as hard as possible.”
So far, so good for the Mavs’ go-to defender.
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