Trail Blazers: Remembering Wesley Matthews’ defensive dominance in the 2014 Playoffs

Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) /

The Blazers can begin to at least think Playoffs again. Today, we remember a Blazer who personified Playoff grit in Wesley Matthews, and the time he successfully stepped to the challenge of guarding James Harden.

Before James Harden would become one of the greatest scorers of all-time, growing pains were aplenty. By the time his Houston Rockets met the Wesley Matthews and the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2014 First Round, he’d generated the reputation as a talented, yet flaky scorer in big moments, and a superstar who spent as much time at the club partying as at free throw line.

If there’s any truth to that, life couldn’t have been easy. Club bouncers were checking Harden at the club door — and Matthews was waiting to check him on the court.

Where the Portland Trail Blazers have lacked in one-of-a-kind generational talents, they’ve made it for it with “nasty,” gritty fan favorites.

There’s a term Italian coaches would use during the Mike D’Antoni days — sputare sangue, which means to “spit blood,” a  hard-nosed philosophy they wanted players to have on-court — and anytime it mattered, Blazers fans knew Wesley Matthews would be prepared to be physical in that way when he stepped to a high-scoring challenge.

Through 2020’s purview, the 2014 West First Round series between the Blazers and Rockets is mostly remembered for the game-winning shot that elevated Damian Lillard from budding star to household name, or the underrated demolition of LaMarcus Aldridge.

But how about the defense Wesley Matthews played on James Harden in that series? Through the first five games of that battle, the future 2018 Most Valuable Player averaged the following:

— 25.4 points per game
— 4.8 rebounds per game
— 5.8 assists per game
— 34.7 percent from the field (on 23.8 shots)
— 25.0 percent from 3 (on 9.6 attempts)

In Game 6, Harden saved face with one of his great elimination game performances — 34 points on 9-of-15 shooting. and SportsVU removed full individual matchup data, but here’s what we can gather from that series:

55.7 percent of Harden’s shots in that series were defined as either “very tight” (0-2 feet away) or “tight” (2-4 feet away), which fit the theme of Wesley Matthews’ in-your-jersey defense.

Matthews’ stats tell a similar story. In that series, the undrafted journeyman forced opponents to shoot 6.2 percent worse than average, including 5.0 percent worse on 3-pointers.

Paired with his hound dog defense, the Blazers employed a strategy of forcing Harden to concede to going right. It’s difficult to use actual film here, but from his highlights, that much is evident. By the end of that game, Harden was forcing shots early into the shot clock, even as the Rockets should’ve been milking the clock, with an 11-point lead with four minutes remaining.

The highlight of the series for Matthews came in that exact situation, a game-winning steal that put the Blazers up 3-1.

At one point, Matthews’ defense (with help from Nicolas Batum) caused Harden so much frustration, he took to calling columnist Fran Blinebury a “weirdo” for questioning him on why he was shooting just 29 percent from the field. Houston’s P/R had to step in, and while better, all-time-great-type days were ahead for Harden, it certainly stood as a highlight for the rival Blazers at this time.

To Harden’s credit, Portland’s laser-locked focus on him allowed other Rockets to score, since they refused to “hedge” or “show” on the occasions, albeit rare ones, where Harden would screen. The day Harden retires, he’s a guarantee for the Hall of Fame. With that, comes excessive attention focused on him on defense. His teammates wouldn’t quite cover the slack on his off-nights.

The war between offensive superstar and defensive scrapper is one Portland Trail Blazers fans like myself can’t get enough of. The Blazers are normally a sure thing to keep a “nasty,” gritty player on the roster. It’s unclear of who that go-to guy is this season. Ariza? Hood?

dark. Next. The 20-year anniversary of the 2000 West Finals

Love for Wesley Matthews went unrequited in 2015, when the Blazers didn’t even allow him a chance to prove himself after rupturing his Achilles. But on a positive note, the moments he did give us were something special. For a while, we thought championship in Portland, and No. 2 was well, one of the reasons.