SALT LAKE CITY — Wesley Matthews has been given one of the hardest assignments in basketball — guarding Kobe Bryant.
Yet Matthews is enjoying the experience.
Byrant, the Los Angeles Lakers' veteran, has shown he can score on anyone over the years, and the Utah Jazz's undrafted rookie has been no different. Bryant went off for 31 in the Western Conference semifinal series opener on Sunday and was then "held" to 30 on Monday.
"It's fun," said Matthews of playing against Bryant. "If you want to be the best, you've got to go up against the best — and beat them."
But so far the Jazz haven't been able to beat Kobe and the Lakers despite staying close in each of the first two games in Los Angeles. Game 3 is set for Saturday night at EnergySolutions Arena where the Jazz hope to take the first step in extending the best-of-7 series.
"They've got to beat us four times," said Matthews. "Until that happens, it's not over and we've got to stay optimistic and positive."
Jazz coach Jerry Sloan is actually quite positive about how Matthews and C.J. Miles have done trying to slow down Bryant.
"You are never going to stop Kobe Bryant," said Sloan. "You just have to work and stay after it. ... Our guys have done a great job trying to do better."
Sloan realizes it's not ideal to pit a rookie, like Matthews, and the 23-year-old Miles against one of the NBA's all-time best scorers in Bryant, who is a 13-year veteran.
"We're asking some young guys to play against Kobe," said Sloan. "They are going through on-the-job training. Most of the teams that are at this stage of the playoffs are playing veteran guys with veteran guys backing up other veteran guys. We don't have that. We have guys who don't have that experience. We have guys that are getting better everyday, but we need to give them 10 years of experience to make it more fair."
Matthews lacks experience, but he does have his coach's attitude and toughness. Utah's starting shooting guard banged up his knee in Game 2 on Tuesday and wore a neoprene sleeve over it at practice on Thursday.
But when asked about his knee being injured Matthews was dismissive. "It's fine," he said. "I don't worry about that."
Bryant had a great shooting game in the series-opener, making 12-of-19 shots from the field. He was just 10-of-22 on Monday night, but made up for his sub-.500 night by dishing out eight assists and making 10 of his 11 free throw attempts. He still finished with 30 points.
"We've just got to keep making things tough for Kobe, make him use all of his arsenal," said Matthews. "We can't let him be comfortable and take his one-dribble pull-ups or get easy layups. We need to make him fight for everything."
"We did a better job making (Bryant) shoot tougher shots in the second game," said Miles. "He might have missed some that he usually makes, too, but that is probably because we didn't let him have the same rhythm he had in the first game. The big thing now is that we need to keep him off the free throw line. That's how he gets his points and gets his rhythm if he's not shooting well. ... He's a tough cover for sure. We just need to stay in his way."
Matthews knows the Jazz are seemingly outmatched by the Lakers, who are bigger and much more experienced. But he thinks he has a recipe for Utah's success.
"We need to match them with heart, match them with toughness," he said.
Matthews' heart and toughness haven't been in doubt. The question, however, is whether that will be enough to help the Jazz climb back into the series.