As the Los Angeles Lakers unveiled their 2020 championship banner against the Houston Rockets last week, Wesley Matthews retreated to the locker room, his competitive fire raging inside. Matthews was happy for his teammates, but he burns badly to win a championship of his own, and as a result couldn’t allow himself to be a part of a title celebration he didn’t earn.
Instead, he sat at his locker and prayed. He needs to help raise a banner before he can allow himself to partake in enjoying one.
“I’m incredibly proud of these guys, having been teammates with them now this season,” Matthews said. “That was something that I felt like was for them. Me, my fire burns, my hunger burns to raise another banner.”
As the Lakers prepare for to defend their title, Matthews looms as an especially important cog in their repeat bid, because at some point they will have to deal with some of the best wing players in the NBA, or go down trying. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George loom in a potential Western Conference Finals, Devin Booker could require their maximum attention in the first round, and the NBA Finals could feature Kevin Durant and James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Michael Porter Jr. of the Nuggets isn’t quite in that echelon yet, but he’s still a real threat if the Lakers see Denver in the second round. Andrew Wiggins also exists as a player that will participate in the play-in game for the Golden State Warriors.
Now, the Lakers obviously won’t have to play all of those guys, but the point is that if they are going to win this thing, they’ll likely have to deal with some of them. That will require the whole team’s defensive attention, because after all, the Lakers are at their best as a unit.
But who will draw the primary assignment on those wing scorers? LeBron James, still not at 100% from a high ankle sprain? Anthony Davis, still working his way back from Achilles and calf issues? The Lakers will need both to be at their best, but looming as a rugged and tough option off the bench — or as a spot starter — is Matthews, who has been rounding into form over the last several weeks.
“These last couple of weeks he’s really performed at a super high level and he gives us confidence that we’ve got a guy out there that we can throw out on just about any matchup and really shut their water off,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel.
Matthews’ first 50 games for the Lakers were up and down, and he shot just 32.1% from three. But over the last eight, he’s hit 41.4% (12-29) of his shots from deep. It’s a small sample to be sure, but it has displayed how helpful he can be when his shot is falling because of how much value he also provides on the other end of the floor.
“Any matchup in the playoffs where they have elite perimeter players, Wes Matthews is likely going to be a factor in that series,” Vogel said last week after his team narrowly lost to the Portland Trail Blazers as Matthews valiantly battled with their backcourt of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.
“He’s an exceptional perimeter defender and brings a toughness to our team, and I think you saw that tonight with the way he competed and used his voice leading our group,” Vogel continued. “He’s a tough dude, man. We’re lucky to have him and he’s certainly going to be a factor in matchups like this.”
The Lakers have been 1.5 points per 100 possessions worse on defense this season when Matthews sits than they are when he plays, and over the last eight games that differential has gone up to 2.8. Over the team’s recent four-game, potential playoff preview stretch against the Nuggets, Clippers, Trail Blazers and Suns, the Lakers outscored their opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possessions when Matthews played, and were outscored by 5.7 when he sat. The only two players with a bigger differential over that stretch were Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol, per NBA.com. And that was before his tip-in saved the game against the New York Knicks, or his steal bailed the Lakers out against the Houston Rockets.
In short, Matthews has been on a tear lately, and the team has noticed.
“The last two games Wes came in in the clutch,” said sophomore guard Talen Horton-Tucker after Matthews’ two game-saving plays in their penultimate back-to-back of the season. “We appreciate him. We’re happy that he’s been ready.”
For Matthews, that second part wasn’t always easy. He openly admitted that he struggled with being in and out of the rotation, and that he wanted to play every game. But he’s a consummate professional, and stayed ready for his opportunity to prove his value.
“Play basketball,” Matthews said of his mindset during a stretch that say him get five straight DNP-CDs before this latest opportunity. “Focus on what you can control. Your habits, your attitude, your presence, what you bring to the team. Pay attention when you’re not in the game so that you can see that you’re not making the same mistakes.
“Put the work in outside of games and practice and just be ready when your name is called.”
Matthews has done that, and he’s created another set of enviable issues for Vogel as he tries to figure out his playoff rotation.
“It’s always good when guys play well enough to create good problems for the head coach, and Wes has certainly played his ass off the last couple games,” Vogel said, and he thinks the rest Matthews got may have actually helped him, even if it wasn’t easy.
“Sometimes when guys fall out of the rotation or take a few games off it gives them some time to get their legs under them, reset their focus and all those types of things, and this seems to have really benefited Wes,” Vogel said. “He’s really competed his tail off on the defensive end. So yes, like a lot of other guys, he’s making a real case to be in the playoff rotation, and we’ve said all along we’re going to need everyone.”
Maybe that’s what Matthews was thinking about as he sat in that locker room, away from his jubilant teammates, alone with nothing but the muffled echoes of joy that resounded through the bowels of Staples Center. Or maybe he was just thinking about the game that night. Or maybe his pregame prayers had nothing to do with basketball.
Whatever the case may be, Matthews rages to get a ring to the point that he won’t allow himself to even transitively experience joy he didn’t earn, even if he’s still glad his teammates got to experience it.
“I was incredibly happy for those guys, my teammates, for this whole organization, this community, the state, all of Laker Nation,” Matthews said. “I’m excited to be a part of this team now, and hopefully get another one.”
If the Lakers do, Matthews will have surely played a part. Then maybe he can enjoy a banner night of his own, satisfied that he earned his place in the cacophony of cheers washing over him.