Mon. Feb 6th, 2023

With two minutes and 11 seconds remaining in Golden State’s 104-94 Game 5 victory over the Boston Celtics, Andrew Wiggins threw down one of the biggest dunks of his career. It was the perfect punctuation for one of the best nights of his basketball life: 26 points, 13 points, suffocating defense, everything the Warriors could ask for from their great reclamation project. With a roaring crowd behind him, Wiggins zoomed past Derrick White through an empty lane into an unguarded basket for the capper to his career night.

Wait a second… Derrick White? An empty lane? An unguarded basket? Surely this wasn’t by design, right? Well, it wasn’t. Let’s take a closer look at the play itself.

When Wiggins takes the ball up the court, it’s not the slimmer White guarding him. No, he’s face-to-face with the Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, whose greatest gift is his ability to defend bigger players. White starts the possession on Stephen Curry, but when Curry scampers down to the corner, the Celtics don’t even wait for a Kevon Looney screen to preemptively switch. As Draymond Green is out, Boston is playing small here with Grant Williams as their lone big man. Yet Boston is so terrified of where Curry might bolt if they don’t preemptively switch before a screen springs him, they sacrifice their only big man at the altar of Steph. 

Williams is now effectively out of the play, which turns into a simple Wiggins-Looney pick-and-roll. White, 6-4 and skinny, was at the other end of that preemptive Boston switch, and he follows Looney back up the floor. Of course, Looney is so big that he can initially angle the screen directly behind Smart, but at the last second slide up a step to throw off White, who he knows will be meeting Wiggins after the inevitable switch. That confusion buys Wiggins just enough runway to build a head of steam before White can do anything to stop him. Jayson Tatum should have been the low-man here, sliding into the lane and off of Gary Payton II in order to contest Wiggins at the basket, but he’s a wing used to playing in gigantic lineups. Instinctively, he expects his big man to be the one at the rim. Well, Williams can’t go to the rim. Watch his eyes. He’s so stuck on Curry that by the time he evens looks back toward the basket, Wiggins is already in the air.

Some version of this dilemma plays out on almost every Golden State basket that isn’t scored by Curry. If you want to understand where the overwhelming majority of Warriors points come from, you only need to watch a possession and ask yourself “where is Steph?” That will typically take you in the right direction. This takes absolutely nothing away from Wiggins. If it were easy to score 26 points even while assisted by Curry’s gravity, more of his teammates would be doing it. When a team decides to acquire a player, especially one as expensive as Wiggins, they’re doing so with the belief that the player in question is suited to playing off of their star or stars. Wiggins certainly is. But in this scenario, Curry is still the star that Wiggins is orbiting. That’s evident when you look at where Curry’s points are coming from. 

In the regular season, nearly 50 percent of Curry’s field goals were assisted. Golden State’s offense is designed this way. Curry is meant to drift around the floor and draw the attention of every defender he encounters, creating opportunities for both others and himself. Boston has taken away a lot of that off-ball majesty, leaving Curry to play a much more conventional style of offense. There isn’t a Warrior that can do for him what he does for them, so he’s been forced to create the bulk of his own shots through pick-and-roll. Through five games, only 33.3 percent of his field goals have been assisted.

Yet even while limited to these difficult, self-created shots, Curry’s counting stats have largely been excellent. Through four games, he’d more than doubled Wiggins’ point total (137 to 66). When that fourth game concluded, Curry was playing so well that many were wondering if he could win Finals MVP even if Golden State were to lose the Finals. He is still the heavy favorite, but after missing all nine of his 3-point attempts in Game 5, a familiar story is playing out around him.

The Warriors trailed the Celtics 2-1 after three games. They also trailed the Cleveland Cavaliers 2-1 after three games in 2015. That 2015 Finals series shifted when Steve Kerr inserted Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup. The Warriors won three straight and the title from there. Wiggins was already a starter, but his ascension over the past two games has been one of the biggest factors in their consecutive victories. Iguodala won Finals MVP for his part in the 2015 championship. On paper, Wiggins is presented a very similar case for himself. Iguodala defended LeBron James in 2015 and at least managed to force him to score inefficiently. Wiggins is defending Jayson Tatum beautifully through five games. Even their scoring numbers are almost identical, with Wiggins (16.8 points per game) slightly ahead of Iguodala (16.3). In the darkest corners of the basketball discourse, the question is already being asked: if the Warriors pull this off and win their fourth championship in eight years, does Wiggins have a chance to supplant Curry for Finals MVP?

If any part of you is leaning “yes,” just go back to that Wiggins slam. Watch as a defender that otherwise might have shifted over to contest Wiggins refuses to take his eyes off of Curry because the thought of doing so for even a moment was more threatening to him than a wide-open dunk. Forget about the (very impressive) statistics. Forget about Curry’s unfortunate history with this award. Just take in the moment that repeats itself dozens of times throughout every single Warriors game, the one where the opposing defense is so petrified by the idea of Curry taking even a contested shot that they’re willing to sacrifice an open one. If that doesn’t exemplify Curry’s value over everyone else on his team, nothing will.

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