Thompson: Andrew Wiggins punctuates his status as a certified Warriors core member

DALLAS – All that was left for Andrew Wiggins was a big performance like this. A coronation of his induction into the franchise’s core. It can only happen in the NBA playoffs, where Warriors are fashioned. Sunday was a crescendo of his adoption into the fold. Fittingly, it came on the road, where the Warriors have now won at least once in 26 straight postseason series. Road playoff greatness is the finest quality.

Wiggins had been stacking moments throughout this postseason, thriving in the dirty work and spearheading the defense. But in Game 3, he popped through with 27 points and 11 rebounds as the Warriors took a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference finals with a 109-100 win. His new signature game – punctuated by his new signature play.

What works about Wiggins, why he meshes so well with this championship core, was evident in the dunk of his life. He saw the rim, he saw Mavericks’ star Luka Dončić in the lane, and somehow his mind switched to hyper-attack mode. He exploded faster, jumped higher, flushed harder. He wasn’t just going for a dunk. Wiggins was trying to snatch a soul.

It’s the same go-get-it mindset on which the Warriors have built this era. The same merciless intent to dominate that peaked in the Kevin Durant years. Wiggins is one of them now because they know he’s got this spirit in him.

“Fourth quarter, in a big win,” said Stephen Curry. And not just because it was Luka, but because of the way it looked. It was unbelievable. “

It was so vicious that referee Marc Davis called Wiggins for an offensive foul after Dončić crumbled to the floor like he was assaulted. The Warriors challenged the ruling on behalf of basketball, because the sport could not stand for such an epic dunk being negated by thespianism.

“That was impressive,” Dončić said. “I’m not going to lie. I saw the video again, I was like, ‘Ooooh.’ That was pretty incredible. I wish I had those bunnies. ‘ ”

Added Curry: “And we got to see 800 replays because of the challenge. So appreciate it, Marc. That was nice. “

Everyone who’s official has one of these types of games. Andre Iguodala in the 2015 NBA Finals. Klay Thompson in the 2016 Western Conference finals. Draymond Green in the 2019 West finals. Kevon Looney in the 2022 West semis. The path to Warriors’ lore is through such timely, memorable contributions. Wiggins is official.

The way he has risen to the Dončić challenge on both ends, on top of his willingness to play his role within the core, is illustrative of why the key figures consider him essential. He has proven he will do what it takes to win. Rebounding. Defending Denver’s big men. Chasing a flash of lightning in Ja Morant. Picking up Dončić full court. Wiggins is about it.

But winning this series against Dallas, which the Warriors are now a game from doing, required him also going after Dončić. The career scorer needed to dust off his offensive repertoire and use it against the Mavericks’ star.

“I think the way this series has mapped out, there’s space for him to attack,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “You know, the way they are guarding Steph and Klay, the lineups that are out there for both seems there’s some room for Wiggs to attack.”

From the opening tip of the Western Conference finals, Wiggins has done so with a swagger worthy of his ringed teammates. The Warriors love going for the kill. From dagger threes to big road wins, they’ve always gotten joy out of demoralizing opponents. On Sunday, it was Wiggins ‘turn to rip the beating heart out of the opponents’ chest. He was the demoralizer.

The Warriors’ first year-and-a-half with Wiggins, and even parts of this season, was about pushing him to the peak of his aggressiveness while still staying within the confines of his role. He’s delivered all postseason, mostly on defense and on the boards. But Sunday, it manifested in his best offensive performance of the postseason. He took 20 shots in a game for the first time since Dec. 28, 2021. His dunk over Dončić served as a microcosm of this series.

“You don’t win in the playoffs without guys like Wiggs,” Kerr said. “We’re basically mirroring Dončić’s minutes so that Wiggs can stay on him. And he’s another guy, like Steph, who just never seems to get tired. He’s in amazing shape. Wiggs, it’s been a brilliant year for him and it’s continued in the postseason. “

It’s not that they knew Wiggins would be this. But even in the face of criticism for their beliefs, the front office believed this was possible. If everything fell into place. If he accepts the need to change his stripes as a player. If he could handle the wattage of the spotlight they’re under. Then, he would be the perfect addition.

Not many believed them. NBA stripes tend not to change after six years. But Tom Thibodeau told them they’d love Wiggins. Jimmy Butler, a renowned competitor, told them Wiggins was a rider. And when he arrived in the Bay Area, Wiggins showed some of the elements obscured by his reputation as a losing scorer. His teammates and coaches were won over.

“We knew from Day 1,” Draymond Green said, “He competes. It was obvious from the jump that he was somebody who gets after it. “

He’s been so vital in these playoffs, his contract is now worth it. Before, evaluating Wiggins required not adding the $ 31.6 million salary for this season to the equation. But his value to the Warriors has been such that even the $ 33.6 million he’s due to make next year seems worth it. The Warriors could very well sign him to an extension this offseason, locking in one of their most integral players. And that wouldn’t hinder talks with guard Jordan Poole, also in line for an extension, because any new contract Poole signs wouldn’t kick in until after the final season of Wiggins’ current contract.

If the Warriors finish off the Mavericks and get to the NBA Finals, they’d be in a position to win their fourth championship of this era. Wiggins will have been a critical part of that. So will Poole. And the Warriors would automatically be among the favorites to reach the championship series again next year no matter how this one ends. Nothing about how the Warriors have done business suggests they would sacrifice winning to cut costs. So it only makes sense they’d run it back with those core players next year.

The question is, can they find a salary number for Wiggins and Poole that could keep both of them? Wiggins would have to take a smaller average salary and more years. The Warriors are on the books for $ 37.5 million between Wiggins and Poole for the 2022-23 season. Would they pay 10 million more, before luxury tax, to keep them both? That’s not something they have to worry about until after next season. They’ve found a keeper in Wiggins and he’s entering his prime. There are no plans to move on from him anytime soon.

Wiggins has earned all of this consideration. He’s worked for it. He’s climbed all the steps. He’s been everything he’s needed to be. That includes not being the player he used to be. Wiggins has been very clear he still likes to score. But he’s been willing to do it in different ways, to wait in line to eat and let the OGs fix their plates first.

The former No. 1 overall pick still isn’t the frontline player he was drafted to be. He is thriving because he is playing with all-time greats. But he has the talent to star in his role and occasionally shine even brighter. He’s learning from them the value of operating in their collective.

“Some people never get the chance,” Wiggins said. “So you can’t take it for granted.”

Andrew Wiggins soars over Luka Dončić for a highlight-reel dunk in a 109-100 Game 3 victory on Sunday night in Dallas. (Glenn James / NBAE via Getty Images)

Not everyone can meet the standard they set. The Warriors have tried many complementary pieces for their championship core. Not all of them, despite their talent, have risen to the level of the stars command. Wiggins has done that. He’s not Durant, but he’s an upgrade over the younger Harrison Barnes, who once filled this same role. And Wiggins is only 27 and just learning about this level.

“Wiggs has it in him,” said one team executive. “It’s all about the situation and the opportunity. That’s the power of No. 30. ”

Curry is, indeed, the singular force that makes the Warriors go. He controlled Game 3, raining threes to remind the Mavericks why they’re terrified of his shooting. That, in turn, opened up his drives to break down the Dallas defense.

By the fourth quarter, Dallas was back to double-teams of Curry near half court. The key to the Warriors’ success is having guys who capitalize. Wiggins was the demoralizer.

“It’s amazing to see it happening under the bright lights,” Curry said. “You don’t know how guys are gonna respond when they’re asked to do what we’re asking them to do at this stage in the season, in the playoffs, when you have the highest hopes. But he’s stepping up and that’s only because of his approach and his attitude and just being a gamer. “

Before the ceremonial anointing of Wiggins in Game 3, before he could enjoy the spoils of his first postseason run, he became a Warrior through shared suffering.

The core of the Warriors was raised together. They rose the ranks together on the road to becoming champions. Which means they lost together. They endured heartbreaks together. They responded together. From getting outclassed by San Antonio in 2013, to coming up short in seven games against the Clippers in 2014, to getting down 3-1 to Oklahoma City in 2016. The chemistry that made them great was birthed through struggle.

After the worst season in recent vintage – 15-50 in 2019-20 – the Warriors set their sights on the playoffs. They closed the 2020-21 regular season by going 15-5 over the last 20 games. It was good enough to reach the inaugural Play-In Tournament. The Warriors then lost to the Lakers in a nail-biter before getting ousted by Memphis.

It was a year ago, but still part of what’s happening now. Before he could win like them, he had to go through the struggle with them. Wiggins got to feel the intensity and pressure. They remember how well he defended LeBron James, how hard he played down the stretch of the close loss against the Grizzlies. His offense was not spectacular, but his willingness to compete registered. They got to see him in that environment. They got to see him respond. This is how intimacy is developed.

Now, despite this being his first real run, he’s got the anointing of the Warriors’ champions. They’ve come to appreciate it when he smiles. They awe at his athleticism and applaud his humility. They communicate with him. They speak up for him, praise him to his face and hype up his contributions. Their journey together, with him in the mix, is what made Game 3 such a monumental night for Wiggins.

Without a doubt, he’s one of them.

(Top photo of Wiggins: Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)


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