SALT LAKE CITY — With seemingly every minute that passes in the Utah Jazz's first-round playoff series with Denver, rookie Wesley Matthews makes himself more at home in the postseason.
In a Game 1 loss, the enormity and finality of the postseason got to Matthews. He attempted just five shots, scored six points and was a key part of a defensive effort that allowed Carmelo Anthony to score 42 points.
"The first one (Game 1), there were definitely playoff jitters," Matthews said. "I've never felt those nerves before."
Matthews made strides in all phases of his game other than shooting percentage in Game 2. In Utah's 105-93 win in Game 3 in an electric atmosphere at EnergySolutions Arena on Friday night, Matthews found his outside stroke, making three 3-pointers and scoring 14 points while contributing five rebounds and three steals.
Matthews said the difference in his play is that he's getting more relaxed playing in playoff pressure, and that his comfort level has increased every game.
"I hope it just keeps getting that way," said Matthews, who's just the sixth rookie in franchise history to start in the playoffs. "I've always been the type where the longer I do something, the more comfortable I get, the better I feel. I was more excited about Game 2 than Game 1, and more excited about Game 3 than Game 2. Needless to say, I'm real hyped for Game 4."
The Jazz were never worried about their rookie, who cracked the starting lineup thanks to his effort, ability to defend and refusal to back down from challenges.
"Every day is a new experience for a young guy coming in this league," coach Jerry Sloan said. "I'm sure it's probably tough for him at times."
While struggling in the first two games, "He never stopped hustling," a defensive Sloan said. "That's when you worry — when a guy stops hustling and stops playing."
The Jazz have never had to worry about that with Matthews, who has become their most valuable defender with Andrei Kirilenko out of the lineup. He's had to guard both Anthony and Chauncey Billups — difficult matchups for anyone in the league.
Anthony's scoring output has decreased each game since he lit the Jazz up in Game 1. After scoring 42 in the series-opener, he had 32 points in Game 2 and 25 in Game 3. Matthews credited his teammates for helping him Friday against Anthony.
"He's a young guy trying to play against some great players," Sloan said. "That's a tough assignment for anybody. All you can do is continue to work at it."
That's what Matthews has done with his jumper. He didn't shoot a high percentage in Game 3 (33.3), but he provided one of the game's biggest shots. He hit a 3-pointer as time expired in the first quarter to cut the Nuggets' lead to 27-21, and it provided an emotional lift for the Jazz and their loud home fans to close the period.
"It was pretty big," Matthews said. "It got the crowd back into it because they (the Nuggets) jumped on us early in the first. We just kind of rode that wave from then on."
It's a wave the undrafted rookie from Marquette hopes to keep riding throughout the playoffs.
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