There are a myriad of places for hoops fanatics to direct their attention during the second-round matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers that started on Tuesday night.
One interesting story to follow is the the battle down low between LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan. Another is at the point guard position, where a budding superstar in Damian Lillard will have his mettle tested against his more seasoned counterpart, Tony Parker. As if that weren’t enough for rabid NBA fans to watch, there will be plenty of intrigue in following Manu Ginobili’s age-defying impact, Kawhi Leonard’s continuing development as the Spur of tomorrow, and Nicolas Batum’s all-around offensive package and, um, sometimes unorthodox defensive strategies.
If you’re done checking through those links (and I highly recommend checking out the one about Batum’s defense), I would like to turn your attention to the true x-factor in this series: Wesley Matthews.
LMA and Lillard are the All-Stars and Batum is the early-round fantasy draft target for being like a Swiss Army Knife in the way he kind of does everything well, but the Blazers live and die by Matthews’ shot. Don’t believe me? Take a look at his splits between the Blazer wins and losses this year (he played in every game this season for the fourth time in his ultra-durable five-year career):
Those shooting percentages, combined and weighted, result in a .636 true shooting percentage in wins and .502 in losses. The .636 true shooting mark he pulled off in wins would place Matthews third in the league in that category for the whole season had he sustained it in all games.
Initially, this looks more like correlation than causation, but there are plenty of interesting records that suggest that the Blazers are simply more successful when Matthews is lighting it up, particularly from downtown.
The Blazers finished the regular season with a record of 54-28 (.659 winning percentage), good enough for the West’s fifth seed. When Matthews shot .500 or better from long range, the Blazers fared even better with a record of 25-5 (.833). Forget the games where he hit exactly half his shots and Rip City went an even more impressive 13-1 (.929) in games in which he hit strictly over .500 from deep. It wasn’t just Wes’ long ball that spelled success for the Blazers either, as they went 23-5 (.821) in games that he shot .500 or better from the field in general.
Shooting accuracy was a big part of the equation, but the volume of made three-pointers also seemed to have a large impact on Portland’s likelihood to pull off a win. In games in which Matthews hit multiple three-pointers (two or more), the Blazers were an impressive 43-16 (.729). In games in which he hit only one or fewer? A measly 11-12 (.478).
Matthews, by most accounts, is the Blazers third or fourth option on offense behind LMA, Lillard, and maybe Batum. When defenses have to account for Matthews on the perimeter (which they often do, considering Matthew led the league in corner threes attempted this year at 184 and hit them at a clip of .391), the floor opens up considerably for Portland's other scorers.
What does this all mean in matchups against the Spurs? The teams split the season series 2-2 with a point differential of +4 in favor of the Blazers. It’s a small sample size and the two teams played fairly evenly, but, interestingly enough, the aforementioned trends that emerged throughout the season when Matthews’ shot the ball well rang true against San Antonio.
In the two games that the Blazers won, Wes shot a combined 17 of 27 from the field (.630) and 9 of 13 from deep (.692). In the losses, however, he hit only 11 of 29 (.379) from the floor and 3 of 10 (.300) from downtown. In the two wins he shot at least .500 from both the field and three-point range, while going under in both areas in the two losses.
The cross matchups between the guards and wing players in this series could get very interesting, but the Spurs will have to keep an eye on Matthews if they hope to keep the edge. Leonard is easily the best wing defender on the Spurs, but he can’t watch Lillard, Batum, and Matthews. If Wes ends up being the odd man out more often than not, the Blazers could possibly exploit his matchup to get the edge. The .522 three-point percentage he posted on 12 of 23 shooting in those four regular-season games against the Spurs represents his best mark against any Western Conference opponent this season.
Yes, the Spurs completed eviscerated the Blazers in Game 1, but that was only the beginning of what could be a long series. In keeping with the patterns listed above, it's worth noting that Matthews shot a lackluster 2 of 6 from the field in the first game of the series and 0 of 3 from long range, finishing with only 8 points in the loss.
Leonard contained and frustrated Matthews effectively, but that's not to say Wes won't bounce back, especially if Kawhi ends up needing to direct his elite defensive skills elsewhere. After all, Matthews averaged 18.8 points per game and shot .500 from the field and .522 from long range in the four games against San Antonio this season and Leonard was there for three of those. We've seen how successful the Blazers can be when Wes is on, so the series could shift if he can break free and get it going.
Apart from his shooting, Matthews' post-ups are a big part of the Blazers’ offensive attack, as they initiate a lot of their sets with Wes on the block. Furthermore, his defense on James Harden in the Blazers' round-one victory was a huge factor, as he rendered the bearded one mostly ineffective. He can beat you in a plethora of ways and whether he plays well or not could be a deciding factor in this series. If the Spurs place too much of their focus on Aldridge and Lillard and forget about Wes, the Blazers could still have a shot at this thing.