BOSTON — It’s easy to forget: Before this postseason, Andrew Wiggins had experienced only one playoff series in his entire career. Basketball is basketball for someone who’s about to wrap up his eighth year in the NBA—and just played in his first All-Star Game—but the possession-to-possession intensity, quarter-to-quarter emotional swings and game-to-game stakes are new for Wiggins, whose battle-tested teammates can’t win these Finals without him.
Steph Curry could’ve bent a spoon with his mind on Friday night and it would’ve been an afterthought; his dazzling 43 points (on 7-for-14 shooting from three) were out of body. But the show would’ve been for naught if not for Wiggins, who remains a barometer for Golden State in this particular matchup. In Game 3, he disappeared and the Warriors fell apart. In Game 4, he had the most important night of his professional life: 17 points and a career-high 16 rebounds, with some huge shots in the first quarter that settled Golden State down against a Boston team that immediately pounced inside a deafening arena.
With Wiggins on the floor, Golden State outscored the Celtics by 20 points. In the five minutes (!) he sat, Golden State was minus-10. So much noise inhabits any single game’s plus/minus numbers, particularly when the greatest shooter of all time decides to paint a masterpiece. But Wiggins’s value is tangible to a roster that’s short on two-way wings … against a team with two stars on the wing.
In my Finals preview, I wrote that Wiggins’s “independent shot creation, defensive versatility and offensive rebounding make him one of the series’ most important players. He’ll be asked to hound [Jayson] Tatum on one end and then strike against a physical defense that loves to reduce ball movement and coax isolations.”
This type of shot-making—off a set cross screen designed to get Wiggins a post touch on the baseline—is critical:
It’s more than scoring, obviously. At his best in these playoffs, Wiggins has had a huge impact on the offensive glass and used his length to bother some of the world’s most threatening scorers; when he fills the precise role Golden State needs him to, the Warriors look like a juggernaut. (He’s +123 in the playoffs, which—in 217 fewer minutes—ties Tatum for the postseason’s best plus/minus.)
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“Wiggs was fantastic,” Steve Kerr said after Game 4. “To go against Boston, you’ve got to deal with 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.”
It’d be too much to say the Celtics have completely ignored Wiggins in this series, but throughout it they’ve made a point to help off him, starting with Rob Williams III as his primary defender from the opening tip of Game 1. He’s been guarded as often by a Celtics big (either Williams III or Al Horford) as he has someone at his own position.
When left alone, his willingness to crash the boards has been paramount to Golden State’s success. For the entire postseason, only Kevon Looney has grabbed more than Wiggins’s 50. Ime Udoka singled him out when a reporter asked about Golden State’s offensive rebounding after Game 4: “We started switching a little bit more, take away the threes, got them off the line. Obviously, that presents some cross matches there. In general, it wasn’t even the bigs on the smalls; it was more Wiggins crashing from the wing. They got some extra possessions as far as that.”
To his credit, Wiggins has embraced what the Warriors need. “I want to win,” he said. “I know rebounding is a big part of that. 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.”
Curry may have two more pantheon-worthy performances in his bag. But it’s hard to see how the Warriors win their fourth championship without Wiggins, the critical addition from Kevin Durant’s departure.
“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. “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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