Sat. Jun 25th, 2022

Heading into the NBA Finals — and dating back to the beginning of the season, really — there was a lot of talk about who would be the Golden State Warriors’ second-best player. Stephen Curry, we knew, would bring it on a nightly basis, and he’s exceeded expectations against the Boston Celtics so far with masterpiece after masterpiece.

But who’s the second guy? Could we get a vintage Klay Thompson performance? Would Draymond Green go back to his playmaking, tempo-pushing, Defensive Player of the Year, rabble-rousing self? Or would it be Jordan Poole, the nascent Padawan whose scoring eruptions are occasionally as difficult to extinguish as Curry’s?

Pssst. You guys. Andrew Wiggins has been right here all along.

Wiggins has quietly — quite literally, the guy barely speaks — emerged as the Warriors’ second-best player this postseason, and it’s not really close when you consider both ends of the floor.

In what amounted to a must-win Game 4 in Boston’s TD Garden on Friday night, Wiggins put up 17 points and pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds in a team-high 44 minutes. At plus-20 for the night, he gracefully played Mercutio to Curry’s Romeo performance of 43 points and 10 rebounds on 7-for-14 3-point shooting, as the Warriors pulled out a gritty, inspiring 107-97 win to tie the series at 2-2.

“Wiggs was fantastic,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “To go against Boston, you’ve got to deal with [Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown, and they are just powerful, skilled players. Great size. They are coming downhill at you constantly, so we had to have Wiggs out there. I thought he was great defensively. … We needed every bit of Wiggs’ contributions.”

As Kerr said, with Wiggins, it’s rarely about the offense. His primary purpose, as it has been all season, is to relentlessly hound the opposing team’s best perimeter player — at this point, it’s hard to believe he was considered a weak defender in five-plus seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves to start his career.

In this series, Wiggins’ responsibility has been Jayson Tatum, the first-team All-NBA forward who entered the series averaging 27 points on 45 percent shooting this postseason. After an 8-for-23 performance in Game 4, Tatum is now averaging 22.3 points in the Finals on 34 percent shooting. Much of that has to do with Wiggins, who has used his length, strength and technique to keep Tatum off his pet spots and contest his drives without fouling. Tatum is shooting just 50 percent in the restricted area during the Finals, compared to 68 percent in the regular season.

The defense in the clip below has become the norm for the Warriors: Wiggins staying attached to Tatum and funneling him in to help, then using verticality to force him into difficult shots around the rim.

After the Warriors were hammered on the boards in the Game 3 loss, Wiggins made it his personal mission to hit the glass — and boy did he take it to the extreme. He came crashing in from the weak side with reckless abandon for 13 defensive rebounds, and also came up with three offensive rebounds, none more important than this put-back on Jordan Poole’s missed layup with just under five minutes remaining.

Marcus Smart had drained a 3-pointer to put Boston up four on the previous possession, so Wiggins’ layup cut the lead to two. On the next Warriors possession, Thompson hit a 3-pointer that gave Golden State a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

“I want to win. I know rebounding is a big part of that,” the soft-spoken Wiggins said after the Game 4 win. “I just want to win. And I feel like sometimes we play small. So I just try to go in there and rebound, help the team out.”

Offensively, Wiggins has largely abandoned the long mid-range shots that drew so much analytics-based ire during his time in Minnesota. He made a career-high 39 percent from deep during the regular season, which has dipped to a still-respectable 35 percent in the playoffs. But every once in a while, when the Warriors’ offense collapses and the shot clock runs down, they need someone who can get a bucket.

With multiple players harassing Curry, Thompson has been largely ineffective off the dribble, shooting just 28 percent on pull-up jumpers in the Finals. Wiggins leads the team in post-up efficiency during the playoffs, going 6-for-12 from the field, giving the team yet another weapon in the half-court. Though it doesn’t happen often, Wiggins can reliably come to the rescue with isolation or post-up creation when his team needs him, as he did on this fadeaway in the first quarter of Game 4.

Put it all together — the defense, the rebounding, the 3-point shooting, the shot creation — and you have the Warriors’ second-best player this postseason. This is nothing new for Wiggins, however, who has gone from a disappointing would-be franchise player as a No. 1 overall pick with the Timberwolves to an absolutely elite role player with a Warriors team that sits two wins away from its fourth NBA championship in eight seasons.

“Wiggs has done what he’s done all playoffs,” Green said after Game 4. “Make it tough for the opposing starter to score. Got in the teeth of the defense. Rebounded the hell out of the ball, which he’s done all playoffs long.”

It’s clear that it’s going to take at least two more herculean efforts from Curry if the Warriors are going to beat what looks like, on paper at least, a superior Celtics squad. But he can’t do it by himself. He needs at least a couple of teammates to come along for the ride — and if you look up and down the roster, Wiggins is the one who’s been sitting shotgun with Curry at the wheel this whole time.

“We all just got to do our part. We have a lot of guys that can go in the game and affect the game in different ways, and right now, everything is needed,” Wiggins said about the team’s mindset heading into Monday’s Game 5 in San Francisco. “Whatever anybody has to give, you don’t want to look back a couple weeks from now and be like, ‘I should have done that, I should have done that.’ You’ve got to leave it all on the floor.”





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