The ‘other’ side: Appreciating Wesley Matthews’ defense

Offense sells tickets and gets us to tune in on TV. Offense goes viral on Twitter. Offense is beautiful art. For most of Dirk Nowitzki’s career, the Mavericks have played more aesthetically pleasing basketball on that side of the floor than any other team in the NBA.

Basketball fans love to watch offensive highlights. If you’re one of those people, I would tell you there’s no better place to take in all of those Mavs replays than this site.

Too often, though, we forget that there’s another side of the game, and it’s arguably much more important than the part where your favorite team scores its points. Defense matters a whole heck of a lot. I think we all agree on that. But I think we will all also agree that unless you’re a defensive-minded coach, there aren’t many plays made on that end of the floor that will compel you to buy courtside seats or pound the retweet button. Big blocks are great and smooth steals are cool, but most of the very best defensive players in the league won’t make a single highlight-caliber play on any given night. In fact, the only highlights you might see involving those guys will be of the player they’re defending making tough shots on them. You’ve got to remember that even if you play unbelievable defense against LeBron James or Kevin Durant, they’re still probably gonna make at least 10 shots on you.

We need to admit that defense isn’t necessarily as “fun” to watch as offense. Defense is disruptive by nature; the point is to make things look bad. It’s also not as easy to understand as offense. We all know what it means when Dirk pulls off a one-legged fadeaway, but unless you’re sitting in on the gameplan meeting, none of us really knows who’s supposed to do what when defending against the pick-and-roll. Playing defense requires five players to be on the same page, so it’s not as easy to shine the spotlight on one player the way you can on offense. Some guys, however — the lockdown guys — play a ton of one-on-one defense, and that’s where, if you pay enough attention, you’ll see some real highlight plays.

The Mavs’ lockdown guy is Wesley Matthews. After watching him scratch, claw, and battle through every possession for two full seasons, I feel comfortable saying there might not be another player in the NBA who so obviously tries as hard as he does on defense. It’s not always pretty (defense never is), but if you really pay attention, it’s easy to appreciate.

Here’s a series of Matthews defensive plays that put into perspective not only how hard he works, but how effective he is as a perimeter defender.

One of Mark Cuban’s favorite sayings is “the only thing in life you can control is effort.” That resonates when watching Matthews work on the defensive end. He isn’t the fastest or most explosive player at his position, but every night he’s tasked with defending supreme athletes at positions 1-3. He makes up for it with a try-hard attitude and a little physicality.

Because he often guards players who can both score and distribute, Matthews runs through mazes of screens on almost every possession. Not only does he have to worry about contact his own man will create, but he’s also got to keep in mind that 7-foot, 270-pound centers are always sneaking up behind him with the goal of laying him out to clear up some room for their teammate.

That doesn’t prevent him from attacking his man, however. As part of the Mavs’ general defensive plan, Matthews often runs into or over the screen as opposed to under. By doing that, he’s inviting his man to dribble inside the pocket of space between the 3-point line and the Mavs’ center, who stays way below the play near the paint. Dallas willingly creates space for opposing wings to shoot pull-up 20-footers, as those are the most inefficient shots in the game. Those players obviously don’t want to settle for those shots, but by the time they’ve recognized what’s happening, Matthews has already recovered from the screen and is in their face again.

In the play above, Matthews fought through three Robin Lopez screens to stick with Jimmy Butler. The end result is Butler taking an off-balance, contested mid-range J late in the shot clock. This is a masterful defensive possession by Matthews and his big man partner Andrew Bogut, who patiently camped out in the lane instead of lunging out at Butler, risking a blow-by or a foul. Sometimes great defense is more about the shots you don’t allow than the shots you surrender. Butler easily could’ve gotten to the basket or at least to the free throw line, but the Mavericks didn’t allow it.

Matthews was one of only two Mavs last season to average more than one mile traveled per game on the defensive end. That might not seem like much, but when you think of how small a basketball court is, it’s hard to even imagine how covering that much ground would be possible. Then when you watch him play, it’s clear as day. Matthews hustles and keeps hustling until either the play is over or he ends up on the ground.

Matthews ranked 34th in the NBA in total deflections last season, per NBA.com, and tied for 14th in charges drawn. He’s not afraid to sacrifice his body in order to make a play, and it’s that unselfish defensive mindset that makes offensive mistakes easy to forget about.

He also finished seventh in the NBA among players 6-foot-7 or shorter in shots contested per game. Centers typically rank at the top of the list because they challenge a dozen layups a game or more, but smaller players generally only contest shots on the outside. Remember how he invites players to take those pull-up jumpers? Sometimes they’re open looks, but usually they’re not.

The Mavs’ strategy of inviting those pull-up jumpers accomplished two things. First, it led to Dallas allowing the fewest attempts from the restricted area per game in the NBA last season. You don’t want your opponents taking layups, and the Mavericks allowed fewer of them than any other team. Second, it forced opponents to take inefficient jump shots, and Matthews’ motor made those looks even more inefficient. Per Synergy Sports, opponents shot just 34.3 percent on pull-up jump shots against Matthews last season, an unbelievable rate — if you’re the Mavericks, of course. Matthews’ ability (or desire) to fight through screens and still get a hand in his opponent’s face might not directly affect the outcome of the shot, but if anything it’s just a not-so-subtle reminder to his opponent that they haven’t beaten him. It’s a mind game.

He’s judicious with his challenges, though. He doesn’t just fly at his opponent regardless of the player and the situation, and that makes him an even more valuable defender. For example, in a late-season game at Milwaukee, Matthews was often tasked with defending Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak had a sensational game, pouring in 31 points on 18 shots and adding 15 rebounds and nine assists. He was magnificent. But when they were able to, the Mavericks wanted Antetokounmpo to shoot the long-ball. Check the pictures below.

Notice how Matthews is backed off pretty far. Antetokounmpo is a phenomenal talent but his 3-point shooting is his biggest weakness at this point, as he shot just 27 percent from deep last season. Matthews is still contesting the shot, of course, but he was several feet away at the time Giannis rose for the jumper. In essence, he was OK with allowing that shot, or he at least preferred a 3 to a dribble-drive.

That wasn’t the case later in the game, though. With under a minute left coming off a jump ball and the Mavs up three points, it was clear that the Bucks wanted to tie. When Antetokounmpo rose for the shot this time, Matthews was not nearly as OK with allowing it.

You can see the difference. Matthews got a little closer and jumped much higher to challenge the shot. Did it affect Antetokounmpo’s release, or the outcome? Who can say? But, again, the only thing you can control is effort.

He’s at his best when the referees let the players play and things get a little more physical. Matthews can be a very aggressive, tenacious player in those situations, and he’s unafraid to get up in an opponent’s air space.

In the play above, he forced Brandon Ingram toward the sideline and rode his hip all the way to the basket. All the while, he steered the Lakers rookie into the help defense, which resulted in a Salah Mejri block. Salah gets the spotlight, but Matthews made the play.

This is especially true late in games and late in the shot clock. On 93 attempts last season with four seconds or less remaining on the shot clock, opponents shot just 32.3 percent from the field against Matthews, per Synergy. You don’t want to have to create against him when you’re running out of time.

Everything we’ve seen so far is a factor in the next play, probably Matthews’ most famous as a Maverick. It came at the very end of a game last season at Portland, when it was Damian Lillard one-on-one against Matthews with Dallas up one point and 10 seconds left on the clock.

In this single play, Matthews twice muscled Lillard away from the middle and toward the outside. He didn’t bother dealing with the potential screen, instead shuffling his feet to cut Lillard off again on the wing and forcing a between-the-legs crossover. At that point Lillard had to pick up his dribble and had just three seconds left to create something out of nothing. He likely got away with a travel as he collected himself to shoot, and then launched a heavily contested fallaway. It missed.

The play features effort, aggression, tenacity, smarts, and a shot contest. Matthews demonstrated almost every positive one-on-one defensive trait you could think of in one 10-second sequence. And, yet, the nature of defense means if Lillard had made that shot, almost no one would have remembered anything Matthews did.

Defense is thankless and brutal. The best players still score half the time or more, even if they’re covered perfectly. A player could work his butt off for 23 seconds or 47:59 and still be on the wrong end of a miracle. Matthews has seen plenty of tough shots fall on his watch, yet he still scraps all game long to make sure that the next one won’t go his opponent’s way, knowing all the while that it’s not totally under his control anyway. It’s an exercise in insanity, frankly, but it’s amazing to watch.

I challenge you to pay more attention to defense in general this upcoming season. Between Matthews and Nerlens Noel, the Mavs have two of the more unique defenders in the league. Harrison Barnes showed some really good potential there last season, and Seth Curry grew by leaps and bounds as a defender as well. Defense is definitely not as pretty as a Nowitzki trailing 3, and it might not always work out their way, but the Mavericks are going to dial up the intensity on that side of the ball this season. There will be plenty to appreciate on the “other” end of the floor this year. You can guarantee that Matthews will be the one leading the charge.

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