Wesley Matthews showed how incredibly tough a player he was by returning from an Achilles rupture on the Mavericks' opening night of the season. But he showed something else entirely in that season opener against the Phoenix Suns when he switched onto Markieff Morris, the 6'10, 245-pound power forward who is third on the Suns in scoring.
With the 6'5, 220-pound Matthews, Rick Carlisle once again has a hyperversatile defensive Swiss Army knife. Last year, he called on Al-Farouq Aminu to fill that role. In years past, it was Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd. On Friday, Carlisle switched Matthews onto Danilo Gallinari after the Nuggets forward scored 12 first half points despite a five-inch height disparity. When Gallinari was held scoreless on seven shots in the second half, it was clear why Carlisle said after the game that Matthews was the only player who could match him.
"It doesn't really matter who you are to me," Matthews said. "I'm going to line up with you and try to make your job hell."
Carlisle acknowledged the significance of a player like this for every team.
"It's important to have tough-minded defenders who can guard multiple positions," Carlisle said. "That's what Wes is. Opening night of the season, he guarded Morris in Phoenix. He's guarded 3s, 4s, 2s and 1s. Before it's over, he'll probably be guarding 5s as well."
The key when guarding a player bigger than you, Matthews said, is to "close the airspace." Dirk struggled to match Gallinari defensively on face-ups in the post, giving up too much speed. In the second half, Gallinari was limited to just one attempt out of the post.
"If they're going to shoot over me, I've got to live with that," Matthews said. "But if they decide to put the ball on the ground, they're going to feel me the whole time."
At other times, because of Gallinari's versatility, Matthews ended up treating him like any other shooter weaving his way through screens, something that likely played into Matthews' hands. This is what he's used to doing, after all.
Matthews is still finding his rhythm since returning from the Achilles injury last year. His defensive rating is second-worst on the team only to JaVale McGee, but the team still has a net-positive with him on the court. Dallas has benefitted through the first few weeks by teams missing an abnormal number of open shots against them, but they still boast an above average defense (ranked No. 11 in the NBA). Perhaps the last two games, including limited Denver to a mere five points in the third quarter on Saturday, can keep the Mavericks in good position even if the averages begin to correct themselves.
"We've got to sustain it," Matthews said. "Back-to-back under 90 points, you'll take that."
As the Mavericks push for a hopeful playoff berth, having a player who can guard all five positions on the court is vital to this team's hodge-podge defensive effort working out. Dallas needs a player who can match Dirk's man, allowing the Big German to wage war offensively while not giving up an equal amount of points on the other end. And with Matthews, Carlisle has that man.
The good thing is Matthews takes on those assignments willingly. Hell, he probably volunteers for it, most nights. It's on him to lead the defense, something that will likely reflect itself statistically sooner than later.
"That's always been a part of my DNA, before I got here, before I got to the NBA," Matthews said of setting the tone for the defense. "I was taught by my mom to guard the best player every single night and not let them score, so obviously I'm not going to hold someone 0-fer, but I'm going to try and make it as tough as possible."