HOUSTON — Wesley Matthews could only have looked more alone on an island if he’d been trying to crack open coconuts and build a raft.
There was the clock running down in a tie game and here was James Harden — the NBA’s opening week version of a five-alarm fire — standing in front of him with the ball in his hands.
“You’re in the gym by yourself and you’re counting down ‘5-4-3…,’ ” Matthews said. “Once the clock hit four seconds, there was gonna be no screen coming. It was just gonna be me and him. He was left hand dominant so I tried to jump to that side and he had the ball loose out there.”
Loose enough for Matthews to strip the ball away and send the game into overtime, where his Blazers ran off to a 95-85 win.
It had been quite an eye-popping start to his Houston incarnation for Harden, scoring 37 and 45 points in his first two games with his new team, putting up numbers that were Chamberlainesque.
But not a bad start to the season for Matthews either, who’d already drawn defensive assignments against Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant.
Then came Harden and one of those headline-grabbing matchups that could have a guy feeling inspired.
“Of course it did,” Matthews said, pointing to his right. “We got this guy (LaMarcus Aldridge) gassing me up. Just talking. Just challenging me.”
Matthews had plenty of help all night long from the Blazers big men who almost always had his back. Still, most of the credit goes to the fourth-year guard. He harassed Harden. He pushed him. He jostled him. He stayed in front of him. He made him work like a day laborer and that resulted in so many of those drives and would-be layups rolling off the rim.
While Harden finished with a team-high 24 points, he shot just 8-for-24 from the field and missed 13 of the 15 shots he took after the 3:56 mark of the second quarter.
It is tiring work to pile up the mountain of points that Harden did in his first two games. But it was more than just raw fatigue that set in and eventually had the new face of the Rockets’ franchise sagging and hanging longer than his beard by the time it was over.
It was Matthews, the firehose that doused Harden’s inferno.
“I look at it as an opportunity to show,” he said. “Because anytime that I’m not on the All-Defensive Team, that just pisses me off. I’m seeing all these other guys get in, and I’m not taking anything away from them, but it pisses me off.
“I’m checking the best player every single night, rarely giving up 50 percent shooting, holding them under their average for the most part. I feel like I should get credit for it. Now I’m taking this on myself not only to showcase what I can do on the offensive end, which I feel I’m doing. But I’m a complete two-guard and the sky’s the limit for me.”
While he sank his teeth into Harden at one end, Matthews also took a return pass from Aldridge and nailed the 3-pointer that tied the game at 81-all with 59.8 seconds left in regular, eventually setting up the 1-on-1 showdown.
After he’d made the stop, Matthews delivered a message to Harden: “Not today.”
They came into the league in the same 2009 draft class and became friends when they played together in the Rookie-Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend.
“He’s a cool dude,” Matthews said. “But when it’s tip-off time, there ain’t no friends out there.”
If a Portland team that is once more trying to remake itself in the post-Brandon Roy and Greg Oden era is to have real success this season, it must rise up in games such as this one against the likes of a Rockets club that it could be battling for position over the next sixth months for a lower rung on the playoff ladder. It’s going to take another All-Star season from Aldridge, a blossoming of Nicolas Batum and more of the stout stuff that was shown by rookie point guard Damian Lillard. And it’s going to take Matthews planting his defensive flag.
“Wes is a warrior,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “He took a challenge on James Harden. He was physical, he was tenacious. The last stop was about pride and character.”
It was also about following the advice of one of his very first — and maybe most influential — coaches.
“Gotta give that credit to my mom,” Matthews said. “Way, way back when I was like six to 13 years old playing AAU, I was trying to get recruited for college. My mom said the best way to get seen is to guard the best player. Guard the other team’s best player, because all the college coaches are watching him. If you shut him down, they got to say, ‘Damn, he only has five points. Who’s guarding him?’ Well, it was me.”
Just the way Mom drew it up.