Assessing Milwaukee Bucks’ surprise decision to start Wesley Matthews

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MARCH 29: (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - MARCH 29: (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

Coming into last night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Grayson Allen had started 61 of his first 62 games with the Milwaukee Bucks. The only game he didn’t start was when he came back from a two-game absence due to an illness. But, lo and behold, he did not start against the Sixers! It was Wesley Matthews.

Matthews has started eight games before last night, but they’ve mostly come when the Bucks have been missing a few key players and he had to fill in. Everyone (except for DeAndre’ Bembry) was healthy last night and head coach Mike Budenholzer still chose to start the 35-year-old veteran over the guy who has been in the starting lineup all season.

It was a surprise to some (not all!) but there are a few reasons as to why it happened and why we could see it again.

Why did the Milwaukee Bucks start Wesley Matthews?

This is a pretty simple answer, really: James Harden.

The Bucks have had trouble defending the Sixers’ sophomore guard Tyrese Maxey this season (outside of Jrue Holiday), so adding in another dynamic backcourt scorer like Harden was going to cause some stress on the Bucks’ defense.

That was a matchup I wondered about and how they would handle it. I eventually settled on the idea that they would throw Khris Middleton on Harden and Holiday continue to check Maxey but also see time on Harden.

I didn’t expect Budenholzer to go to such a drastic change in the starting lineup this late in the season and also not want to show his hand in a regular-season game (even though it is late in the year).

Matthews being inserted into the starting lineup made the matchups a lot smoother, though. Lopez on Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo on Matisse Thybulle so he’s able to roam around as Thybulle is not a threat to shoot, Middleton on Tobias Harris, Matthews on Harden, and Holiday on Maxey.

Milwaukee did some fun things defensively to start against Joel Embiid, primarily sending late doubles when he began his dribble and then rotating if he kicked out. Embiid has improved as a passer big time this season, but they were able to speed him up a few times which was good to see.

Then when the Sixers adjusted and began to get him in more pick and rolls with Harden, they started to pre-rotated on the pop from Embiid while still staying in drop coverage with Lopez. It was a bit of a mess in the second and third quarters at times, but when the Bucks locked in with their five best, most versatile defenders on the court, it was a sign of what could be in the playoffs.

How did Wesley Matthews do in the starting lineup?

But for the most part, Matthews held up fine. He played around 25 and a half minutes, was a minus-one in a two-point win, and made a couple of solid plays at both ends. He’s not going to do a whole lot that stuffs the stat sheet, but he’s one of the smartest defenders on the Bucks and allows them to switch more and play a more versatile defense.

There’s not a whole lot anyone can do against Harden when he has the stepback going and is able to get downhill to draw fouls (whether you agree with the calls or not doesn’t matter). Harden had a team-high 32 points on nearly 72 percent true shooting so it’s hard to say Matthews slowed him down, but I’d say his impact was felt more with what they could do defensively as a whole.

He’s been frustrating at times (mostly when he had his massive shooting slump in the middle of the season), but the defense has remained consistent and that’s what will keep him in Budenholzer’s rotation.

His shooting (when it’s on) and defensive versatility will be huge for the Bucks going into the playoffs. Ever since that Christmas Day game against the Boston Celtics when they closed with Matthews to help switch everything, I’ve said that he should be in their closing lineups late in games essentially all the time.

What does this mean going forward for the Milwaukee Bucks?

All in all, this probably won’t have much effect on the rest of the season. This seems like a matchup-specific starting five and you could sort of see that from the minutes distribution too.

Allen played basically a minute less than Matthews because the Bucks still need his spacing and shooting around Antetokounmpo.

I like the idea, though, if they want to go back to this well again… say, next game against the Brooklyn Nets, perhaps?

Matthews lets the Bucks do more things defensively while also not being an absolute zero on offense (now that he’s hitting shots at a somewhat solid clip — he’s around 38 percent in his last nine games) and Allen benefits from being a higher priority in the offense when one Middleton or Holiday are sitting.

Overall, I don’t expect this to be an every-game thing but it’s positive to see that Budenholzer is willing to adjust his starting five from what’s been a pretty solid four-man combo. Allen with the big three has an 8.3 net rating this season in over 450 minutes and he was still willing to change it up based on the matchup.

I’ve said that the regular season is about trying stuff, experimenting with schemes, lineup combinations, all of that and that’s what this was. Another experiment with an eye towards a potential playoff matchup against one of the East’s contenders.

Next. Ranking 5 potential first round opponents for the Milwaukee Bucks. dark

There are only seven games left in the regular season and the Milwaukee Bucks are still finding ways to keep us entertained and intrigued!