NEW YORK -- Entering Monday night's game against the Nets, the Portland Trail Blazers posted an 8-2 record, a significantly better clip than the 33-49 record they played at last season.
It's easy to point to the significantly improved bench as one reason for the change. Last year, they had six players with a Player Efficiency Rating above 12. This year, so far, they have 10.
But a closer look at the starters who carried them last year, and this year's counterparts, doesn't really account for the rest of the difference. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, who both played at a high level last year, are doing so once again. Nicolas Batum is playing a bit better than last year, but not dramatically so.
Wesley Matthews, though, has taken a leap forward over his career rates so far. And he, at least, takes issue with the idea that anyone should be surprised he's turned into one of the best shooting guards in the league.
But that he's done so at 27, just weeks after a nightmarish preseason that included 26 percent shooting and an irregular heartbeat scare, has only added to the unexpected nature of his breakout.
"I never thought about it, until you just said it," Matthews said of doing this after the most difficult few weeks of his career, after a beat in apparent realization, as we chatted by his locker prior to Monday night's game. "I guess, yeah, it's kinda cool, especially to have the preseason that I did, with so many people wondering about my shot. And then to have the health scare right before the last preseason game, the first time the starters were all playing together, at the same time, a lot of uncertainty after that, it's nice to be able to just block it out.
"God works in funny ways. I was kind of stressed in the preseason. Once that was over, it was like a new door opened. And I'm trying to make the most of it."
He certainly has so far. The irregular heartbeat has been cleared up. Matthews has always been a pretty efficient shooter, shooting 40 percent from 3 for his career. But that's jumped to better than 51 percent entering Monday night this season, and lifted a career 44.7 percent shooter overall to 55.4 percent this year. His true shooting percentage of 68.2 percent is sixth in the league. And he's doing it while using fewer possessions than ever before, which makes Wesley Matthews the leader, so far, in offensive rating in the NBA. Not LeBron James. Not Kevin Durant. Wesley Matthews.
He's also managed to improve his rebounding significantly, without sacrificing anything on the defensive end or fouling more.
His head coach, Terry Stotts, professed a complete lack of surprise at this development from Matthews, or that it's even occurred.
"He's doing what he did last year for us," Stotts said outside his locker room prior to Monday night's game. "He takes the defensive challenges, he makes clutch shots -- what he's doing now, he did for most of the season last year until he got hurt. I think he's just kind of maintained a high level for us."
Another reporter pointed out that sure, he was good last year, but he's making more than half his shots this year.
"Yes he is," Stotts replied, as if afraid to jinx it. Asked if it's just a hot streak, Stotts said with a Cheshire Cat smile, "I don't know. We'll see. Every time he shoots, I think it's going in, and you can do your research [on] how well he shot last year. He got off to a good start last year, too."
Not this good. Over his first nine games last year, he shot 44.4 percent overall, 40.7 percent from 3. Nothing wrong with those numbers. But nothing like he's managing now. The results cast further doubt, if any was needed, about how useful preseason numbers are, especially compared to a player's career rates, for good and for ill.
But though nothing about the mechanics of Matthews' shots have changed, a pair of changes Matthews decided upon for himself this summer have manifested themselves in his improved performance.
"My mentality now is thinking about rebounding more," Matthews said. "And that's my way to get more engaged in games. Because I'm not a guy who needs my shot to be falling to get going. A deflection, a steal, a rebound, that first contact, that's what sparks me, gets me going in games. So anything I can do to crash, get the rebound, that helps me out."
The net result has been nearly a doubling of Matthews' rebound percentage, from 4.6 percent last year to 8.2 percent this season.
"Just going and attacking the glass every time," Matthews said of his new approach. "A shot would go up and I'd be at the top of the key, and just watch, assume one of our guys was gonna go get it. But being one [who's] in there, making sure even if I don't get it, that one of our guys gets it, and then if I don't get it, to bust out like in college and high school days."
That was the kind of scrappy, Buzz Williams-y player Matthews was at Marquette. Matthews actually views this change as a return to the way he used to play.
"My friends, all summer, kept saying, joking with me about it, 'You don't play the same as you did.' And [I'd tell them], I still go hard, I still compete. 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, but you're not playing the same.' And I took that to heart. I've always played with a chip on my shoulder, being undrafted, but that just added fuel to the fire."
And it's fascinating that he isn't paying for that extra effort at the other end, that in fact, he's thriving like never before.
Matthews credits a change in his training emphasis this summer, back home in Madison, Wisc., either at a local gym or his house.
"I didn't do as many drills, I did game-like situations," Matthews explained. "And still some drills, but I'd practice what I was gonna see in the game. I would have cones, chairs, and I would use those as screens. If I was going on-ball, I'd do a lot of throwing the ball at the glass, defensive rebounding, pushing the ball up the floor. Picking up tennis balls, things like that, it's still good to do, helps your hand-eye coordination. But 70, 80 percent of it was, what I was gonna do in the game."
As if to emphasize the point, Matthews went out after our discussion and drained his first four 3s Monday night. The hot streak, or the new level of play, continued. No one knows if this new efficiency will last. But Matthews pointed out that no one can say with any certainty that it won't.
"What would make me mad is, people would always put that potential label on you," Matthews said, though it was clear what he was really saying was others, with a drafted pedigree, would get that label instead of him. "You know, your age, and it's your X year in the league, so this is your potential. And I don't believe in that. How do you measure what my potential is? You're not in the gym with me, you're not doing what I'm doing. So how do you know how good I can get?"