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Wesley Matthews’ defense stands out in a nail-biting loss to the Knicks

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It was overshadowed by the final score, but Matthews shut down one of the NBA’s premier scorers in dominating fashion.

NBA: New York Knicks at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With a little more than a minute to go, Kristaps Porzingis caught the ball about two feet higher than the left elbow. Before he faced up, he jabbed his long right leg trying to create separation from the airtight defense. No luck. The defender stuck to his hip like glue.

So, Porzingis pivoted, faced the basket and looked to shoot over the defense. But in doing so, he allowed the defender to close the space even more and throw a hand up right as he started his shooting motion. Porzingis splayed his legs as he released and the ball clanked off the backboard.

For the fourth time in the final quarter, Wesley Matthews made the future Knicks’ All-Star visibly uncomfortable doing all he could in the Mavericks’ 100-96 loss on Sunday. In what seems to be a common theme this season, the Mavs record in crunch time games took another hit, but one thing prevailed amongst the rest: Matthews absolutely put the clamps on Porzingis in the fourth quarter.

We’ve seen Matthews’ defense take over a moment before. Like last season, when he engulfed Damian Lillard 30 feet from the basket to seal the win in Portland late in December. Or last March, when Matthews stifled Russell Westbrook on the perimeter and in the post for almost a full 20 seconds, forcing a turnover. Never one to back down from a challenge, Matthews’ prides himself on his hard-nosed, relentless effort on that end of the floor.

But Sunday night was a whole different beast. Carlisle deployed his undersized small forward on Porzingis, and Iron Man responded in a resounding way. Matthews played some of most inspiring, stingy defense of his career when he shut down the Knicks’ budding superstar for almost an entire quarter.

On paper, Porzingis and Matthews are a colossal physical mismatch. Standing at 7 feet 3 inches tall with an alleged 8 foot wingspan, the native Latvian is one of the more physically impressive players in the NBA. Matthews, on the other hand, stands at an ordinary 6 feet 5 inches tall, and it’s clear he hasn’t carved out a successful NBA career because of his physical traits.

On Sunday, however, Porzingis struggled mightily only scoring six points in the final frame — all on free throw attempts. The three-year pro went 0-for-5 from the field in an uncharacteristic closing quarter performance. Porzingis didn’t just miss shots, he missed tough shots.

Check out this possession with about nine minutes to go. Matthews gets clipped slightly by a Ron Baker screen but is able to recover quickly enough to force a tightly contested jumper. Matthews is still trying to fight through the screen when Porzingis catches but is able to close the gap quickly, get a hand up and make Porzingis uncomfortable.

In the above play, the Knicks secured the offensive rebound, gained another offensive possession and fed their superstar. Matthews doesn’t necessarily prevent Porzingis from getting position, but he knocks him off-balance making him uncomfortable from the onset. Then, as the seven-footer is rising up into his shot, Matthews pokes the ball free, taking advantage of Porzingis sweeping the ball low.

With a little under seven minutes to play, Matthews made one of best defensive plays of the night. Porzingis posts the Mavs forward, but notice how Matthews digs in and gives no ground. Then, in the midst of stonewalling Porzingis’ 240 pound frame, Matthews has the wherewithal to poke the ball free. And on the ensuing loose ball, his hustle and grit draws the offensive foul. It was simply an outstanding defensive effort.

Sometimes, Matthews was able to prevent Porzingis from even receiving the ball. Watch below as Matthews battles for position from one side of the floor to the other, all the way until the defensive rebound is secured. This type of play doesn’t show in the box score, but it’s a big reason why the Mavs were able to make the game competitive late.

That Matthews was able to blow up the Knicks drawn up play out of a timeout is remarkable in itself. That Matthews was able to affect this shot so much that Porzingis airballs is astonishing. A 6 feet 5 inch floor-bound guard has no business altering the fadeaway of a 7 fee 3 inch jump shooter. But Matthews did, and he gave the Mavs yet another chance to take control of the game.

Matthews was asked about his defensive effort after the game. Can you guess what he attributed his success to?

“I mean, with any great player you’ve got to make them uncomfortable,” Matthews told reporters. “He’s 7’3’’, 7’4’’, can put the ball on the ground, can shoot it easily. He’s got moves and got confidence. He’s a great player. I was just trying to make it uncomfortable for him.”

Uncomfortable was the choice of word for Carlisle as well.

“I love Wes Matthews defensively at the end of games because he’s so smart and physical, and he makes it extremely uncomfortable for the guy he’s guarding,” Carlisle said.

It was the kind of effort that has endeared Matthews to the front office and coaching staff. Given a seemingly impossible assignment, Matthews responded in the only way he knows how — by working his tail off and making no excuses.

Unfortunately, the Mavericks failed to capitalize on Matthews’ spirited defensive effort. But maybe that actually embodies Matthews’ attitude better than a win would have. No matter the circumstance, battle and compete, and live with the results.