Matthews, Batum make the connection

Blazers duo tough on defense in NBA playoffs

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers Writer

Published:

 

Next Game

Game 1: Blazers at Spurs, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. TV: TNT, cable Ch. 54. Radio: AM 620

As the streamers fell and the Blazermania spirit filled the air, Portland’s Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum made eye contact in the middle of the celebration and without a word went into a midair chest bump.

“It just felt good,” said Matthews about the moment. “It was over. Everything we did was worth it and all the sacrifices we made.”

The duo that will often linger by their neighboring lockers to talk after games, shared a moment of relief together.

Next Game

Game 1: Blazers at Spurs, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. TV: TNT, cable Ch. 54. Radio: AM 620

“We can communicate without talking. I actually followed him home yesterday,” said Matthews on Sunday in Tualatin, Ore.

In the greater NBA hierarchy, they’re usually cast as the other guys.

The ones who are tasked with guarding the LeBron’s and Durant’s of the world.

Batum and Matthews, along with Robin Lopez when it comes to big men, are the ones who guard the big names.

And they’ve been taking it personal, too.

“I think we both consider ourselves better than what other people give us credit for. When someone comes in that’s talked about more than us we have that pride factor,” Matthews said.

Matthews thinks Batum is embracing that role more than ever.

“I’ve seen this out of Nic more this season than I have all the four years of me being here so you already know I embrace that mentality,” Matthews said. “It’s just a mutual respect and we try to pull and pry to try to get the most out of each other.”

Even prior to the playoffs, little missions such as trying, and succeeding, to end Atlanta’s Kyle Korver’s NBA record for consecutive games with a three-pointer at 127 motivated the pair.

They guarded James Harden as he shot a dismal 37.6 percent from the field and 29 percent from beyond the three-point line.

“James Harden is not an easy guy to guard. Trust me. He’s good,” Batum said with a very serious look.

They also put up numbers of their own.

Batum averaged 15.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 46 percent shooting and 30 percent from three.

Matthews averaged 15.3 points a game on 41 percent shooting and 30 percent from three while having Harden for the majority of the time.

They made big plays in the series and pride themselves on playing both ways.

“Wes, the last six games against Houston, was unbelievable. It was maybe the best defender in the NBA,” said Batum about Matthews’ defense on Harden.

When they switched, it happened almost instantly.

“We have this natural connection, me and Wes,” Batum said. “Now we play together for four years. We have different coaches, but we know each other. He knows sometimes or when he got fouls or he’s tired, we just look at each other and say ‘OK, switch, I got it.’ Just by a look. We don’t talk.”

Added Batum: “On offense and defense, I know where he is. He knows where I am on defense. I know when he needs a rest, is in foul trouble. We know that’s why we’re really good so far.”

Matthews thinks it’s a case of opposites coming together: Batum, the skinny first round pick from France who became an NBA starter at 19, and Matthews, the bulky shooting guard from Marquette by way of Madison who played 82 games for a playoff team as an undrafted rookie.

“It’s a weird one,” Matthews said of their relationship. “We’re almost opposites and it’s kind of like what puts us together. It’s cool to have someone like him on the court and compete with.”

Now after Harden they will likely be tasked with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the backcourt leaders for three San Antonio Spurs title teams and one that was 28 seconds away from a fourth less than 365 days ago.

With more eyes watching them than ever, they’ll be the ones across from the guys with the big names as they and these Blazers continue to make a name of their own.

“Yup,” Matthews said when asked if he’s looking forward to another elite perimeter match-up. “Whoever we got.”