An hour before a game that would take the Portland Trail Blazers season deeper into its eight-month grind, Wesley Matthews sat in front of his locker.
The five-year NBA veteran, nicknamed Iron Man, talked about his recipe for keeping his body fresh during the long season. The ingredients were almost elemental.
Water — “Hydration, this year is probably the best year of me doing it right,” he said.
Cold — “You can’t be afraid of ice.”
You’d expect the third ingredient to be something like fire, the competitive will that drives athletes.
Instead it was rubber.
In the locker to Matthews’ right, Allen Crabbe was shooting runner bands across the room trying to hit targets at lockers 15 feet away.
But Matthews, maybe the Blazers most intense player on the court, started talking about having fun.
“You’ve gotta do a bunch of stuff to keep it light,” Matthews said. “Like, Allen why were you doing that? You see each other every day. It’s a lot easier if you like each other.”
To hammer home his point, Matthews then flicked the ear of Crabbe, a second-year guard.
“It’s easy to get caught up where it’s competition all the time, serious all the time,” Matthews said. “Sometimes you have to step back and see how blessed we are to do what we love.”
Matthews and Crabbe are on opposite ends of the NBA spectrum. One is an established veteran who leads the NBA in 3-pointers. The other is a young reserve trying to grab a foothold in the league.
Yet their banter shows not only why the Blazers have one of the NBA’s best records, but might be poised to survive the season’s grind with their sanity intact. And much of that credit goes to Matthews.
Over the past week, Matthews unveiled a new celebration after each made 3-pointer. He pretends to pull an arrow from a quiver on his back and shoot it toward the bench, where teammates hold imaginary apples on their heads.
Matthews told how the celebration originated during a practice where every shot seemed to be going in.
Matthews shot a 3-pointer that he said “just fell right.” Matthews pretended to shoot the ball out of the air with an arrow before if swished through the net.
From there, Crabbe, Victor Claver and others helped mold the celebration into something Matthews has done over the past week.
Teammates have bought in. The Blazers reserves, instead of dozing on the bench, have been engaged whether on the floor or not.
They’ve had to be. Robin Lopez’s injury and LaMarcus Aldridge’s illness have left the Blazers short-handed over the past two weeks, yet they entered Saturday’s game having won nine of their last 10.
It’s too early to be handing out MVPs. Aldridge is making a strong case to be anointed the best power forward in the game. Damian Lillard is quickly becoming a superstar and one of the NBA’s best clutch shooters.
But it’s hard to imagine the Blazers being where they are without Matthews.