With Alex Caruso and Anthony Davis sidelined for Monday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel turned to Markieff Morris and Wesley Matthews; two players that had been healthy scratches in the previous four games. But while Morris got the start in Davis’ absence, it was Matthews that had the biggest night between them.
In 26:04 off of the bench. Matthews scored 16 points on 5-7 shooting from the field and 4-5 shooting from behind the arc, the latter of which was a game-high. The rest of the team went 5-33 from 3-point range.
“(He) hit some big threes on a night where we couldn’t throw it in the ocean,” Vogel said after the Lakers’ 119-112 overtime win.
Matthews also recorded three rebounds, two steals, an assist and a block. He finished the night second in plus-minus (+10) behind Montrezl Harrell (+12) and second in defensive rating (91.7) behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (91.5).
“Exceptional performance by Wes tonight,” Vogel said. “That’s the simplest way to put it. Incredible energy on both sides of the ball, but particularly defensively, in a game where this is a duck-your-head-and-drive-the-paint offensive attack that had a lot of screening action. You need as many guys as you can that can contain the basketball and two of our best containment guys, AD and Alex, being out, we definitely needed his toughness on that side of the ball.
“He was great, and I thought Keef was a true pro. Stayed ready, played a really good basketball game as well. Didn’t get as many offensive opportunities, but both of those guys were crucial in us getting this W tonight.”
Performances like Wednesday night are nothing new for Matthews. They’re the reason he was the starting shooting guard on the team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, the Milwaukee Bucks. But unfortunately, those performances have been far and few for the 34-year-old shooting guard in his first season with the Lakers.
In the seven games that Matthews played leading up to his four consecutive DNPs, he shot 26% from behind the arc. On the defensive end, he was still productive, but not enough for him to have a positive net rating. Meanwhile, Talen Horton-Tucker, who is 14 years Matthews’ junior, was making a case for a spot in the rotation. Naturally, the spot he took was Matthews’.
Matthews obviously wasn’t happy to learn that his role with the team was going to be minimized — even in the short-term — but he was glad that Vogel talked to him before he made that decision.
“It’s never going to be what I want to hear,” Matthews said. “I want to play every single game. That’s just the competitor that I am. He knows the conversation isn’t going to be easy; I know the conversation isn’t going to be easy; but the conversation needs to take place so you can get the best out of somebody.
“Had I not known that I wasn’t going to play, maybe I don’t know do what I do pregame and it doesn’t have the roll over effect from tonight. Those conversations can be difficult, but they need to be had. I didn’t love anything he had to say, but your job is to be professional, your job is play basketball and cheer on your teammates and be a pro. That’s it.
“Like Dudz puts it: Be a pro.”
During his postgame media availability, LeBron James revealed Jared Dudley actually gave Matthews’ the game ball for his performance. An argument could have easily been made for James to get the game ball after his third triple-double of the season, and the 500th triple-double of his career, but even James knows how much Matthews has sacrificed for the team this season.
“[He’s] just a true professional, man.” James said. “We all knew what we signed up for when we came here, and Wes is the same. Obviously his competitive spirit, I don’t think anyone would be comfortable with not playing, but for the team and for the grand scheme of things you just stay ready and he did that.
“You never know what’s going to happen. He didn’t know AC was gonna be out, didn’t know AD was going to be out tonight. He’s just been putting in the work behind closed doors, behind the cameras,” James continued. “Just staying ready, and tonight was that opportunity, and he made the most of it. And for me, I trust every teammate that’s out on the floor with me. If you’re on the floor with me, late-game, first quarter, throughout, it doesn’t matter. He put himself in a position and I was able to find him and he knocked it down.”
It’s unclear if Matthews will be back in the rotation next game or when Caruso returns — whichever comes first — but if there’s one thing we do know after his performance on Monday, it’s that when his number is called, he’ll be ready.
That’s just what true professionals do.