SAN FRANCISCO — Reputations tend to linger when they add up and for a while Andrew Wiggins’ reputation in the NBA was for being a failure.
For years, the word about Wiggins, a former No. 1 pick, was that he was inconsistent. That he was bad at defending. That he didn’t care.
The Cleveland Cavaliers had drafted him first overall in 2014, but traded him to the Minnesota Timberwolves less than two months later. More than five seasons in Minnesota bore little fruit, and after the Timberwolves only made it to the playoffs once during that period, they sent Wiggins to Golden State.
However, his last stop has changed things for Wiggins. Wednesday night offered another example of his progression.
Golden State made a statement in the opening game of the Western Conference Finals, with the Dallas Mavericks leading by 30 points in the fourth quarter to win 112-87. Golden State’s points total was not exceptionally high, but the defense secured the win.
Wiggins was a big part of that. The Warriors asked Wiggins to be their main defender against All-Star guard Luka Doncic, and Wiggins made sure Doncic didn’t hurt Golden State the way he had hurt the Mavericks’ previous opponents.
“That’s why he was the number 1 pick,” Golden State’s Klay Thompson said of Wiggins. “You can’t teach that athletic ability. You cannot teach that length. You cannot learn his timing. I’m just glad the world is starting to see who he really is.”
Doncic finished the game with 20 points, just one more than Wiggins and only 2 of those after the first half. He also made seven turnovers and had only four assists. Doncic suggested after the game that a sore shoulder had played a part in his performance, saying it hurt him when he shot the ball, but added he would be fine with some treatment.
But part of Golden State’s plan was to wear him out, and it was Wiggins’ job to do just that.
“He took the challenge, and Luka is tough,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry. “He still finds a way to control assets. You have to assume he will shoot a little better, but Wiggs was relentless. He approached him with every possession. That’s all we really want. Even if Luka has his numbers, at the end of the day you just want to feel like he had to work for everything he got.”
With most of the ball, Wiggins started guarding Doncic in the backcourt, preventing him from easily getting the ball onto the field. When asked after the game whether that effort on the field had tired him out, Wiggins shrugged and half smiled.
“I feel like I’m still young,” said Wiggins, who is 27. “I don’t really get too tired. I’m locked in. I’m motivated. And if you see it working or if I feel like it helps us play better, it just motivates me to do it more.”
Said Thompson, “He just doesn’t seem to get tired.”
Thompson appreciated the effort more than most: The way Wiggins played, he said, took some of the pressure off him.
“I don’t have to check the best player every night,” said Thompson, who was known for his defense before missing the last two seasons with leg injuries. “Especially after what I’ve been through, it’s a nice change of pace.”
The 87 points the Mavericks scored was their opponent’s lowest total against Golden State this postseason. The Warriors have kept opponents under 100 points three times during the playoffs this year; every time they have won.
The Mavericks had great success from a 3-point range in previous rounds, but made only 3 of 19 3-pointers in Wednesday’s first quarter, finishing the game 11 for 48 from behind the arc. Those misses came from their entire roster — it wasn’t just Doncic who struggled offensively. But Doncic is the player controlling the Mavericks, so his battle is getting bigger.
After the final buzzer, Doncic let out a long exhale as he walked through the tunnel to the visiting locker room in Chase Center. He wore a T-shirt over his uniform because he hadn’t played in the last five minutes; by then, the game was too far out of control for him to play to be worth the risk. His face was marked by an unintentional red Wiggins scratch, several inches long, from the right side of his nose down his cheek.
The Mavericks have a habit of losing and recovering a lot. They lost to the Phoenix Suns by 30 points in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals before beating them by 27 in Game 6 and 33 in Game 7. Several Mavericks players spoke of a much better performance Wednesday after the game van Doncic during Game 2 on Friday.
“We’re under no illusion that we’ve come up with anything,” said Golden State Coach Steve Kerr.
What they’ve discovered, and are glad others are seeing now, is that Wiggins has tapped into some of his potential that may have been dormant or at least less apparent in previous seasons.
Thompson said being with Golden State has allowed Wiggins to be himself. Curry said he’s learning to win.
“Wiggs understands the nuances of what winning basketball is and how he capitalizes on the little things in terms of consistent effort from the defense, taking on one-on-one challenges, being aggressive on the attacking side, and using his athletic skills to help the edge when needed, confidently shooting the 3; being comfortable in our attack,” Curry said. “So there are a lot of different things that he understands that this time, in terms of a playoff run, having to win games and the joy that comes with it.”
Wiggins returned the credit for that right to Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, who all won three championships and went on to win five consecutive NBA finals together.
“It helps me see a different side of the game,” Wiggins said. “To be here, the culture, the people, the organization, most importantly, just to be winners.”
A winner wasn’t very attached to Wiggins early in his career, but over these play-offs he has shown more and more that it fits.