By John Hollinger
PORTLAND – Cancel the funeral dirges, Portland. It appears the Trail Blazers may contest the rest of the season after all.
Portland played its most complete game of the season on Thursday, coming from an early 14-point deficit to topple Orlando 97-83, for its third straight win. The Blazers have clawed their way back to .500 at 11-11, and find themselves tied with Phoenix for the coveted eighth position in the Western Conference.
And for that, they can thank that rarest of rarities: a midlevel-exception player who has proven to be worth his money. While the Curse of the MLE has claimed victims far and wide, Portland’s Wesley Matthews – who signed a front-loaded five-year, $33 million deal with the Blazers this summer – has instead been a revelation.
Matthews scored 20 points in the victory tonight and is averaging 21.1 points per game in nine outings as a starter. Moreover, his contributions are exactly of the variety the Blazers had been missing. He’s proven a jack-of-all trades scorer who can hit 3s off the catch, attack off the dribble and get out in transition – all areas where the post-up heavy Blazers have struggled to produce points, especially with Brandon Roy’s gimpiness.
Portland, meanwhile, is starting to figure out how to play through Roy’s limitations … partly because Matthews has proven so capable at creating offense on the wings. For the season, in fact, he leads the Blazers in points per minute and shooting percentage – even though he’s had virtually no plays called for him.
When the Blazers signed him, they thought they were getting a defensive stopper who would hit a few 3s. He’s done that – witness the sequence where he fought off the bigger Rashard Lewis in the post before drawing a charge – but has proven to be much more as well.
As a result, this is one midlevel deal were the signing team doesn’t have buyer’s regret. The Blazers still will land shy of the lofty goals they had entering the season, but as long as Matthews keeps delivering, they may not fall as far as originally feared.