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Heart of the Blazers: Matthews not missing a beat

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews gets wrapped up by Sacramento Kings forward Patrick Patterson in a preseason game at Moda Center.There was Wesley Matthews Monday afternoon at the Trail Blazers' training facility, working late as usual with assistant coaches and other staffers, among the last of the players to leave the practice floor.

It has never felt better to see Portland's veteran shooting guard looking healthy and happy.

Matthews will be in the starting lineup when the Blazers open the regular season at Phoenix Wednesday night, a week after he left a practice session while experiencing an irregular heartbeat.

"Feeling good," Matthews told me Monday. "Probably not 100 percent. I missed a couple of days of practice. But my wind is getting back, my rhythm is getting back."

Matthews, mind you, is only a sliver short of indestructible. The 6-5, 225-pounder began his NBA career with a streak of 250 consecutive games before sitting out a Dec. 10 game against Toronto last season. To miss any games ticks him off to no end. Matthews figured he would be the NBA's version of Cal Ripken, or at least Lou Gehrig. Or the next coming of A.C. Green.

So when Matthews wasn't with his teammates on the Wednesday night flight to Oakland for the Blazers' final preseason game against Golden State, "I knew it was really something wrong," point guard Damian Lillard says.

Matthews hadn't been quite so sure when it happened. He was shooting free throws toward the end of practice, and suddenly he went to his knees.

"I didn't collapse," he says. "I just felt my heart racing. I wasn't really scared because I didn't know what it was."

Matthews has no history of heart troubles. The Blazers do, though.

Teammate LaMarcus Aldridge has twice undergone an electrical treatment procedure for Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a heart disorder, and missed games because of it both times. Matthews' incident surely raised a white flag with Portland medical personnel, who immediately took him to the training room and, shortly thereafter, to a doctor's office.

A doctor determined Matthews' condition to be atrial fibrillation.

"Can't remember what the therapy is called," Matthews says, "but he sedated me, shocked me (with paddles), put my heart back regular. I'm good."

While Matthews calls the incident unsettling, "it never never got to the point of true fear," he says. "We took care of it early."

Let's hope. When it happened, though, the Blazers weren't sure what to think.

"It was scary," Lillard says. "Wes plays hard. Once someone mentioned it was something about the heart, I was like, man, that's way more serious than basketball.

"It goes way further than being a teammate. I was worried as a friend, to know he has that type of condition. It's not something you get every day. I'm just happy he's all right."

I'm sure Terry Stotts' heart skipped a beat when he learned the news.

"When you hear anything with the heart, that's a big concern," Portland's second-year coach says. "There's a natural concern above and beyond a twisted ankle. Thankfully, it wasn't as serious as suspected."

Matthews is an acquired taste as a player. I didn't fully appreciate him for some time after he joined the Blazers following a successful rookie season with Utah as an undrafted player out of Marquette. He's a streaky shooter and not a great scorer, both important skill sets at 2 guard. He's not particularly quick, not a big rebounder or assists guy for his position. I wasn't sure he'd ever be complete enough to be a bonafide starter in the league.

But Matthews has won me over. He averaged 14.8 points and shot .398 from 3-point range last season. He has come through in the clutch at times. He is a willing and able defender. He's a tough guy. Best of all, I'm convinced he's one of those rare pro athletes who puts team over individual pursuits.

There's a certain irony to his recent ailment. In a metaphorical sense, Wesley Matthews is right at the heartbeat of the Blazers.

"You really could say he is the heart of the team," Lillard offers. "Wes is a true competitor in every way. In practice, he gets mad about fouls and turnovers. You know what you're going to get from him every day. In games, he might not touch the ball for a few possessions, but he's still going to be the first one to sprint back and play physical defense.

"He's going to have something to say in every huddle. He's going to hold guys accountable, but he's going to hold himself accountable first. It's great to have a guy like that on your team."

Matthews has served as a mentor and cheerleader for teammate Joel Freeland, a center/forward from England who went through some down times sitting the bench as a rookie a year ago.

"I love Wes," Freeland says. "He's a really good guy. Helps me out all the time. We always talk. He stays on top of me. He said the other day, 'I'm not going to let you let up. You have to keep doing the stuff you're doing.' That was cool, that he cares about me."

I ask Stotts what comes to mind when the subject of Matthews is brought up.

"His toughness, his vocal leadership, his intensity, his 3-point shooting, his work ethic," the Blazer coach says. "He is one of the first guys in the gym every day, one of the last to leave. He wouldn't be where he is today if he didn't have that mindset. He has fought for everything he has. That's what's gotten him in the league and into the position he is in."

Matthews returned to practice Saturday, and Monday was in all-systems-go mode. There have been no ill effects, and he'll admit to only a smidgeon of self-doubt over the episode of a week ago.

"Any time you have something like that, you're going to be more cautious with anything you do," he says. "Any little twinge, any movement, you're going to check. It's going to be a mental thing for awhile. But I'm mentally tough. I'll be able to block that out."

Matthews, who turned 27 on Oct. 14 and is beginning his fifth NBA season, is entering the salad years of his playing career. He seems assured that the heartbeat will stay normal, that the problem is in the past.

"It was a nuisance more than anything," he says. "Chalk it up to a fluke."

I'm hoping that's all it was. The heart of the Blazers deserves that much.

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