San Francisco – The fourth quarter started with the Warriors down 19 points. Steve Kerr went with a small squad, four players on the wing and Draymond Green in the center, trying to start some kind of positive.
Visiting Phoenix, who played without most of their key players, did the opposite. Dario Daric, at 6-foot-10, and Jock Landale, at 6-foot-11, anchor the Suns lineup to start the final clip. And through a few moves and screens, they managed to get Landale up the post against Andrew Wiggins, who is about four inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than the Suns center.
This works like magic. for Wiggins.
“They’re thinking ’cause I’m skinny,” Wiggins said, smiling. “I love hitting there.”
Wiggins hit two offensive fouls on Landale, who tried to beat the Warriors forward at the post. Being physical, offering resistance, while challenging his strength and body, he was like caffeine on his game.
Going into the fourth quarter, Wiggins was 4-for-12 from the field with 8 points. He was really good in his second game coming back and wasn’t quite the same. So he closed in on the defensive end of the field and brought back what looked like a championship version.
Before long, Landale was out of the game, and Wiggins was taking full court. Phoenix didn’t have point guard Chris Paul, assistant coach Cameron Payne, or superstar Devin Booker. The reserves the Suns had on the field were full with this version of Wiggins. Energetic. violent. effective.
If there’s an upside to Tuesday’s 125-113 loss to Phoenix, one of the worst of the season, it’s a welcome sight of Wiggins’ shutdown. It’s been a long time. But it was a microcosm of the solution for the Warriors. Intimacy with mediocrity. The change happened in defence. Change coincided with mounting urgency and desperation. The change included a Wiggins lock.
“My accusations were so far out,” Wiggins said, “I had to do something.”
Wiggins finished with five steals, four in the fourth quarter. His pressing was a defensive spear that the Phoenix reserves struggled to get the ball through their half of the field. As a result, the Warriors almost stole a game they were behind by 27 runs.
Wiggins missed 15 games, most of them with an adductor muscle injury and the latest batch of an illness that crippled his family. It was the most time he has missed in a single period in his entire career. He missed 21 games in his first eight seasons. So this last experience was completely new to him.
His expectation was that he would be back on the field and be himself shortly thereafter. For Wiggins, a few round trips are usually all it takes. But this journey was more difficult. His vacation inexperience taught him a lesson about the difficulty of returning to battle. But at best after this disappointing performance, Wiggins found his edge. And the warriors desperately need it.
Stephen Curry is back. They basically survived him missing a shoulder injury. If this season is to turn up, as many predict, it will start with him and Wiggins. Greene grabbed the castle as they walked out. Klay Thompson has come back to life. Jordan Paul needs them to come in and distract some defence. The Warriors need to playoff Wiggins along with MVP Curry. Tuesday’s loss may have been the blow Wiggins needed.
“I think for him individually, and anyone coming back from injury,” Curry said, “You have to remind your body what it’s like to meet that level of intensity. It’s very hard to emulate that even in practice or scrimmage or in the conditioning stuff that you do. … everyone He responds to it differently. You have to remind yourself what that level is like. Kind of shock the system a little bit to get over the hump so that every game gets a little bit stronger, a little bit stronger. I think, hopefully, he felt that (Tuesday night) and it’s going to look a lot better.”
The warriors are now back on the road, where they were so horrible. They need Wiggins to find his form to turn this trend around.
Defense is the Warriors’ biggest problem on the road. This is amazing seasonin fact, but especially on the road.
Warriors allows 41.2 percent of 3-yard shooting on the road. Only San Antonio’s 3-point defense (42 percent) is worse. The Warriors allow 21.8 free throws per game on the road, tied with Oklahoma City for worst in the NBA. Opponents shoot 49.7 percent when the Warriors visit, which is No. 27 in the NBA.
The issue is perimeter defense. The Warriors aren’t very good on point offense, which starts a host of issues — including the 22.8 errors they commit and the 33.5 open three-pointers they allow per road game, according to NBA Stats. They need Wiggins to change that, to be the player that was in the playoffs. When Wiggins is that guy, Green can focus on the paint and being an elite defender – rather than having to become a defender on the ball and leave the back of the Warriors defense more vulnerable. When Wiggins is that guy, they don’t have to spin as much, which means they have less chances of blowing the spin and leaving the shooter open.
Wiggins hasn’t been that guy for most of this season, even before his injury. This was understandable. The heroism hangover is real. It’s hard to recall that level of intensity after just a few months of giving your all. It made sense for Wiggins to take the pace.
It also made sense for him to find himself by focusing on defense. Suddenly, on Tuesday night, he was smashing the boards as we remember the postseason. Suddenly, I felt like he was lying on the ground. It started with having to wrestle in the paint with a center and choosing a full court for defense. Conditioning and energy have been difficult to maintain for Wiggins as he recovers and finds his rhythm. But he found a way to summon it against the sun. He’s a great athlete and the Warriors looked different when he unleashed it defensively.
Kerr said, “I just think, the level of pressure and intensity of the ball that he showed in the second half, especially (in) the fourth quarter — that’s what we want him to be. That’s who he was in the playoffs last year. After that long layoff, he just wasn’t quite what Okay until the fourth quarter. I actually told the coaches that I think this could be a good thing for us, honestly. You need to get a wake-up call. You need to be reminded of how hard it is to win. And you need to understand the level of commitment to each other, to the game, that you have. It takes him to win the title…. Hopefully this is the jolt we need to motivate ourselves because the first half of the season was full of ups and downs.”
Without a doubt, the Warriors need Wiggins’ offense, too. The Warriors offense has turned into a 3-pointer as defenses press the perimeter for their greatest weapon. Instead of responding by attacking inside, as they did in the postseason, the Warriors have mostly responded this season by taking tougher 3s or running back more. This is the main reason they are, at midseason, 19th in the NBA offensive rankings, managing 112.3 points per 100 possessions.
A big part of that is Curry’s absence. One of the elements he brings as one of the greatest offensive forces ever is the versatility of attacking central defence. He is the primary playmaker for the Warriors. Without him and Wiggins, Jordan Paul and Ty Jerome were the two players who could make the transition from the perimeter to the defensive teeth. And Paul, due to the defensive pressure he’s under and missing the basketball, has had his struggles getting it done. In general, the Warriors choose the easy way out – throwing 3-pointers.
When Curry fell on December 14, the Warriors were fifth in 3-point percentage points. Since then, they have finished in fifteenth place. It’s not exactly breaking news that they’re worse at shooting three-pointers without Curry (Wiggins, who spends a year in his career from behind the arc). But what was a problem was that they averaged over 3 seconds without the best shooters. When Curry got out, they averaged 43.2 per game. Since then, 43.7.
Of Warriors’ field goal attempts this season, 48.2 percent have been on 3 attempts. But in the postseason, when defenses are at their best and teams are determined to knock off the 3-pointer, only 43.3 percent of their shots are from the 3.
A big part of that was that Wiggins was counter to aggressive defenses seeking 3s to get rid of. He is one of the few two-point specialists who can get a bucket. He’s a professional scorer who can finish the sprint at the edge, beat mid-range jumpers and create shots to himself in isolation. It was perfect.
The Warriors need that and Wiggins now. If losing to Phoenix causes him to come back, it could actually be the best loss of the season.
Steph Curry returns, but the Warriors still lose to a depleted Suns
(Photo: Carrie Edmondson/USA Today)