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Saad Yousuf | March 7, 2016

Wesley Matthews, one year later

Nothing has ever stopped Wesley Matthews. An Achilles injury wasn't going to be the first.

"And Matthews is shaken up, remains in the backcourt."

It was a move Matthews had made "hundreds of thousands of times." But as he ran down the sidelines against the Dallas Mavericks on March 5, 2015, this time it was different. This time he crumpled onto the hardwood, staying down until doctors helped him off the floor.

Just hours after, Matthews' worst fears became a reality. His left Achilles tendon was ruptured and suddenly everything he had worked for - 250 consecutive games played in the NBA, a Blazers team hopeful for playoff contention and an upcoming payday in the coming summer - was in jeopardy.

"You say everything happens for a reason," Matthews told Portland media the night after it happened. "But when I was in that [MRI] tube, I was just thinking, what was this reason? I can't find it right now."

The Injury

Wesley Matthews' rise to stardom was unconventional. After a stellar four-year career at Marquette, he went undrafted in the 2009 NBA draft and made his way into the league when he signed a one-year deal with the Utah Jazz in September 2009. By the end of the season, he was the team's starting shooting guard. But he wouldn't stay there.

As a restricted free agent the following summer, the Portland Trail Blazers signed Matthews to a five-year, $34 million offer sheet. Utah did not match, and off to Oregon went the two-way shooting guard. He quickly became part of the young core there, playing in every game in three of his first four seasons as a Trail Blazer, earning the nickname "Ironman" for his durability playing through injuries. Matthews was in the final year of his five-year contract, having more than 16 points per game in arguably his best year yet, when it all came to a screeching halt.

"I felt every emotion that's not positive," Matthews told Mavs Moneyball, recalling his emotions from the night his Achilles gave way. "I was in shock, I was in awe. I couldn't believe it. I was upset, I was sad. I was mad and frustrated."

The timing of the injury just didn't make sense to Matthews.

"I just couldn't figure out why it was happening now. I was having the best year of my career. I was defying every single odd."

On March 6, the day after his injury, Matthews tried expressing his emotions through Instagram. He acknowledged that his will, heart, faith and strength were all going to be tested and he openly welcomed the challenge. He said that even though his season was over, the Blazers' season was not.

But that was just wishful thinking.

The Blazers were 41-19 and pushing for a top-three seed before Matthews was hurt. Following his injury, they won just 11 of their 27 games, quickly falling in the first round. Without the player who LaMarcus Aldridge called "the heart and soul of the team," Portland stood no chance.

As Matthews continued an arduous rehabilitation process, NBA free agency crept up. Aldridge left Portland to pursue his championship aspirations in San Antonio, and scarred by recent history with injured players in Brandon Roy and Greg Oden, the Trail Blazers never even offered Matthews a contract, instead choosing to center their young team on Damian Lillard.

"I was pissed off," Matthews told The Oregonian. "I felt disrespected."

As early as late June, it was clear Matthews' rehab was ahead of schedule, and he was anxious as ever to get back on the court. It wasn't a matter of if he would return to the basketball court. It was a question: where?

meeks(Matthew Emmons/USA Today Sports)
Arrival in Dallas

Once free agency started, Portland decided to not even put an offer on the table for Matthews. Although questions about his injury recovery lingered, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban gave Matthews a call. Cuban told Matthews he wanted him to be a core piece in Dallas for a long time. Chandler Parsons, already under contract with the Mavericks, joined in the recruitment.

"He was one of my favorite players," Parsons said. "My strengths and his strengths combined are pretty deadly."

Cuban's  confidence came from Mavericks trainer Casey Smith, who believed the team could help Matthews overcome the oft-debilitating injury. After Achilles injuries, the careers of Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups were never the same. Doctors talk about how modern medicine has advanced the treatment of the injury tremendously, but it's still telling that seven of the 18 players that suffered the injury from 1992-2012 never even returned to the NBA.

"We talked with his surgeon, knew a lot about Wes and how he approaches things." Smith told Mavs Moneyball. "The expectation of work in this rehab is very high and to be honest not everybody is willing to do that level of work. We didn't have any doubts with Wesley."

Dr. T.O. Souryal, who until recently was the team's physician, also believed in Matthews.

"The question that was posed to me was if he's worth taking a medical risk on," Souryal said. "And my answer was yes."

Even with interest from the Toronto Raptors and a four-year, $65-million offer on the table from the Sacramento Kings, Matthews chose Dallas. His four-year, $70-million deal - the NBA's max - was originally going to be $13 million less so the Mavericks could sign DeAndre Jordan. When the Clippers center changed his mind, Matthews was one of the few people in Dallas who actually benefitted.

Money aside, Matthews felt his own self-confidence was reciprocated by Dallas.

"It went hand in hand," Matthews said. "They had confidence in their training staff and their medical staff, and they had confidence in me."

By the time he arrived in Dallas, Matthews was just beginning to jump and advance into more physically taxing exercises. The bigger issue was making sure his heart and mind didn't jump ahead of his body's progress.

"We had to keep the reigns on him," Smith said. "He wanted to go 0 to 60."

Although Matthews' goal was to start on the season's opening night -- in fact, he guaranteed his return in an interview with Mavs Moneyball in August -- the Mavericks had their doubts. At Mavericks media day in late September, head coach Rick Carlisle ruled out Matthews for the opener and indicated he might not return until Christmas.

Smith saw it differently.

"I told Wes that we have certain goals," Smith said. "If you reach these goals, you can play."

As the season opener drew closer, Matthews' work continued. His workouts spanned three to five hours, working on his mobility, strength, balance and his ability to accelerate and decelerate. Only then did he step on the basketball court, where he shot and mixed in court movements. His days usually ended with cardio work to get himself back into basketball shape.

Dr. Souryal's front row view meant he wasn't surprised, either, when Matthews' return came so soon.

"Those guys make us look good," he said.

On Oct. 23, eight months after suffering one of the worst injuries in basketball, four months after he signed with the Mavericks, two months after telling Mavericks fans he'd be back by the season opener, and a month after his head coach ruled him out, Matthews one-upped even his own goal and was introduced in the starting lineup for the Mavericks' final preseason game.

He was finally back.

meeks(Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports)
Defying the odds

The recovery process wasn't over, though. What Matthews couldn't control was how quickly his Achilles tendon healed. Mavericks head athletic trainer Casey Smith said it was a tricky process.

"It's (both) patience and hard work," Smith said. "There is a time factor but there is also a strength and rehab factor. So you can't just wait for seven months to hit the clock and you're going to be fine. During that time you have to be putting in a very high level of work."

Early on for Matthews, the most important number was how many minutes he played. From the very start, Matthews embraced a pretty decent workload. He played 26 minutes, second most on the team, against the Suns and drew the defensive assignment of Markieff Morris. Despite conceding five inches and 25 pounds, Matthews held Morris to just four points as the Mavericks started the season with a 111-95 win in Phoenix.

After the second Mavs loss at home against the Charlotte Hornets, though, Matthews conceded he wasn't a finished product.

"As much as I'm wanting to hate this phrase, it's a process," Matthews said. "But we have to speed it up."

On Nov. 11, DeAndre Jordan made his first trip to American Airlines Center after scorning Dallas for Los Angeles. With all eyes on this nationally televised game, Matthews stepped up, hitting the 30-minute mark for the first time all season. He scored an efficient 25 points in the Mavericks' 118-108 win.

"Wesley is a beast in the locker room," Cuban said on 105.3 The Fan's Ben and Skin show the next day. "A lot of things we saw from Tyson Chandler, we're seeing from Wes Matthews in terms of just being demanding, and being forceful in the locker room, being vocal. His impact isn't just what he's doing on the court, but off the court as well."

As his rehab continued, Carlisle sat Matthews on the second night of a back-to-backs - something that he wasn't thrilled by.

"I don't want to sit games," Matthews said after sitting one of those games in November. "That's not me. I've missed so much basketball that I need as much basketball as possible. I understand trying to rest me and I have to find a way through it and I will."

Besides his play against the Clippers, Matthews continued to struggle. The final eight games of November where particularly tough, but he still had the belief of those around him.

"I don't look at the stats as far as what guys are doing shooting the ball," Carlisle said on Nov. 20, following a night where Matthews missed nine of his 12 shots. "I'm looking at how hard they're going, where their concentration is, and if they're sticking to the process. Wes is very consistent. He does not hesitate."

On Dec. 1, Matthews made his first trip back to his former home in Portland. He hit another milestone, playing 40 minutes for the first time in the season as the Mavericks defeated the Trail Blazers. But when the Mavericks returned home to host the Houston Rockets, Matthews' struggles reached a tipping point. He made just one shot all night on nine attempts in a loss. After the game, Matthews was visibly frustrated.

"I'm just tired of hurting the team," Matthews said in the locker room. "I'm tired of missing shots. I've put everything I have in getting back and getting ready. I'm just trying to keep doubt out."

Around the locker room, even as some fans complained, his teammates stayed confident in him.

"He's our fighter," Dirk Nowitzki said. "He's a hard-nosed kid, tough guy. He'll be okay."

Chandler Parsons pointed out that Matthews' impact on the team goes far beyond his jump shot.

"He just needs to stay confident," Parsons said. "He's not letting us down. He's given us everything he has every single night. He guards the best player every single night."

It wasn't enough to appease Matthews.

"I suck right now," Matthews said. "Point, blank, period."

meeks(Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports)
A slow turnaround

On Dec. 6, the Mavericks played the Wizards. After the unspectacular first half where the Mavericks trailed by three, Matthews burst out.

He exploded for 28 points in the final 24 minutes, including eight three-pointers to give him 10 on the night as the Mavericks won, 116-104. After the game, Matthews was relieved, but far from satisfied.

"I gotta do it again," Matthews told reporters. "It was one of those nights where the same shots I was shooting and missing were falling tonight."

His teammates, who had to come to his defense just 48 hours ago, spoke about his performance.

"He's a guy that relentlessly works," Nowitzki said. "You're just happy for a guy like that who puts the team first and works so hard."

Mavericks guard Raymond Felton expressed similar thoughts.

"That's a guy who's a warrior," Felton said. "He's a dog. He's a guy that's going to go at it every night. He's hard on himself. He's been beating himself up since the beginning of the season. I'm like, ‘Wes, it's gonna come, it's gonna come. You're coming off an injury. Just take your time.' And tonight it clicked."

December continued and Matthews' shooting stayed. As Matthews finished 2015 strong, so did Chandler Parsons, also coming off an offseason knee surgery that limited him to start the year. The duo who predicted they'd be the best wing combo in the league looked more and more like it.

"It's more exciting," Matthews said in December. "We're not anywhere close to what we can be as a tandem, as a duo. It's going to be scary when it happens."

While both players excelled on the court, their head coach reminded everybody to pump the brakes.

"Both of these guys stated very clearly when their injuries happened, their goal was not only to be back, but to be back better than they were before," Carlisle said. "To do that, it's going to be a long-term proposition."

The Mavericks ended the calendar year hosting the Golden State Warriors. Matthews drew the assignment of Klay Thompson and held him to just 10 points in a blowout win in one of his best two-way performances. His final monthly averages of 15 points and 34 minutes per game showed Dallas the player a healthy Matthews would be.

meeks(Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports)
One year later

But it didn't come with consistency right away. January was Matthews' worst month as the Mavericks played 18 games, tied for the most games in a month in team history. Even sitting out a couple of back-to-backs, Matthews' minutes continued to increase, averaging nearly 36 minutes per game in the month.

His rehab continued daily outside of his already busy game preparation. He worked on balance, strength and change in direction, among other things, to help him perform at a higher level in the games. In some ways, Casey Smith's job became more of a motivator.

"We keep telling him, look, you're not a hundred percent," Smith said. "You're good enough to play but you're still going to be better."

Even when Matthews struggled shooting, his defense would change games. One day after Chicago's Jimmy Butler dropped 53 points, Matthews held him to just four points on 2-of-11 shots.

Matthews finished January playing the Suns where he once again struggled with his shot. After the game, questions reappeared about his slump.

"I'm gonna keep shooting it and keep attacking it the same way I have been," Matthews said. "It's only a matter of time before that glass breaks."

Carlisle continued to vouch for the other things his starting guard, who led the team in minutes, brought to the team.

"He's one of our leaders and our best individual defender on the perimeter," Carlisle said. "He sets a culture tone for us."

Following the All-Star break, the Mavericks began a six-game homestand. In the first game, Matthews scored 21 points on 67 percent shooting in a win. He followed that with a 15-point game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Finally, it seemed Matthews was getting his groove back.

Before Dallas played the Thunder, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban described a scene from the previous night. When he arrived at American Airlines Center for a concert at 10:30 p.m. the night before, he found Matthews on the practice court, still working on his shot.

"How many people work that hard and care about their job?" Cuban said. "He's that guy that just says I'm going to outwork you. Nobody has higher expectation of Wes than Wes."

One year ago, Matthews fell into the unknown, not knowing what the future would hold for him. His basketball career was in a limbo and there were far more questions than answers. Little did he know, the team in the opposite uniform that night would be the answer.

Matthews is still improving every single day. He knows it's a process - as much as he hates that phrase - and is determined to be better than what he was before that traumatic night in March 2015. He's on a team where everybody supports him, from the owner, to the training staff, to the coach, and of course his teammates. The injury didn't cost him the payday he had earned last summer. None of that, though, leaves him completely satisfied.

"I want to be the best I can possibly be," Matthew said. "And the best way to pay respect to the game is to leave it all out there."

Producer: Tim Cato | Editors: Tim Cato, Rebecca Lawson | Video: Austin Ngaruiya | Title Photo: Kevin Jairaj/USA Today Sports

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