August 9, 2022

Heading into the NBA Finals — and going all the way back to the start of the season, in fact — there was a lot of talk about who would be the Golden State Warriors’ second-best player. Stephen Curry, we knew, would bring it every night, and he has exceeded expectations against the Boston Celtics with masterpiece after masterpiece so far.

But who is the second guy? Could we have a vintage Klay Thompson performance? Would Draymond Green return to his point guard, tempo, Defensive Player of the Year and hustle? Or would it be Jordan Poole, the nascent Padawan whose scoring blowouts are sometimes as hard to extinguish as Curry’s?

Psst. Guys. Andrew Wiggins has always been there.

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

In what amounted to a must-win Game 4 at Boston’s TD Garden on Friday night, Wiggins scored 17 points and had a career-high 16 rebounds in 44 minutes, a team high. 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 earned a gritty and inspiring 107 win. -97 to even the series. at 2-2.

“Wiggs was fantastic,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “To face Boston, you have to deal with [Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown, and they’re just powerful, talented players. Big size. They constantly attack you, so we had to have Wiggs there. I thought he was great defensively. … We needed every contribution from Wiggs.”

As Kerr said, with Wiggins it’s rarely about the offense. His main focus, as it has been all season, is to relentlessly hunt down the opposition team’s best perimeter player – at this point it’s hard to believe he’s been considered a weak defender for more than five seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves to start his career. .

Wiggins’ responsibility in this series has been Jayson Tatum, the first-team All-NBA forward who entered the series averaging 27 points on 45% shooting this postseason. After an 8-for-23 performance in Game 4, Tatum is now averaging 22.3 points in the Finals on 34% shooting. A lot of that has to do with Wiggins, who used his length, strength and technique to push Tatum away from his favorite spots and challenge his flawless drives. Tatum only shoots 50% in the restricted area in the Finals, compared to 68% in the regular season.

The defense in the clip below has become the norm for the Warriors: Wiggins stays attached to Tatum and channels him to help, then uses verticality to force him into hard shots around the edge.

After the Warriors were hammered to the boards in the Game 3 loss, Wiggins made it his personal mission to hit the glass – and he took it to the extreme. He came on the weak side with a reckless drop for 13 defensive rebounds, and also had three offensive rebounds, none more significant than this comeback 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 Warriors’ next possession, Thompson hit a 3-pointer that gave Golden State a lead they wouldn’t give up.

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

Offensively, Wiggins has largely given up on the long, mid-range shots that sparked so much analysis-based anger during his time at Minnesota. He reached a career-high 39% from deep during the regular season, which fell to a still-respectable 35% in the playoffs. But every once in a while, when the Warriors offense falters and the shot clock runs out, they need someone who can get a bucket.

With multiple players harassing Curry, Thompson was largely ineffective on the dribble, shooting just 28% on pull-ups in the finals. Wiggins leads the team in post-up efficiency during the playoffs, going 6 for 12 from the field, giving the team another weapon in the half court. While it doesn’t happen often, Wiggins can reliably come to the rescue with isolation or post-up creation when his team needs him, like he did on that first-quarter fade of the game 4.

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

“Wiggs did what he did all through the playoffs,” Green said after Game 4. .”

Clearly it will take at least two more Herculean efforts from Curry if the Warriors are to beat what looks, on paper at least, like a superior Celtics team. But he can’t do it alone. He needs at least two teammates to go with him – and if you look up and down the list, Wiggins is the one who’s been sitting with Curry at the wheel this whole time.

“We all have to do our part. We have a lot of guys who can come into the game and affect the game in different ways, and right now everything is necessary,” Wiggins said of the mindset of the team ahead of Game 5 on Monday. in San Francisco. “Whatever somebody has to give, you don’t want to look back in a few weeks and be like, ‘I should have done that, I should have done that.’ You have to leave everything on the ground.”