Andrew Wiggins’ individual defense
Andrew Wiggins out-jumped Maxi Kleber, one of Dallas’ two undersized centers, for a putback tip in the middle of the third quarter that put the Warriors up 18. It already gave Wiggins 19 points in his conference finals debut.
He was scoring well. His team was playing great. This felt like, within the gantlet of a playoff game, a moment for brief relaxation. Jog back down the court, get set for another defensive possession while the Mavericks walk it up, maybe glance up at the scoreboard to check out that sparkling stat line.
For a split second, Wiggins began that satisfied stroll. But then he remembered his most important job for Game 1: Pick up Luka Dončić full court, crowd his space and make life uncomfortable. There’d be no time for tranquility.
Here is a slow-motion replay of that Wiggins sequence. He tips in two points. His basketball IQ tells him to get back on defense. But then his brain reminds him — find and hound Dončić.
Among Gary Payton II’s most important obligations all season was the 94 feet of ball pressure he could put on an opposing point guard when the Warriors staff felt the head of an offense needed to be jolted out of rhythm.
“Reggie (Bullock) did it to me a couple times tonight,” Stephen Curry said. “It’s just one more thing to think about (for a ballhandler). I wouldn’t say it bothers you, but it’s something you can’t try to overcome.”
Payton is out, which strips the Warriors of his unique talent. In the aftermath, Wiggins has shouldered that on-ball duty, telling Mike Brown before the Game 6 closeout of Memphis that he wanted to pick up Tyus Jones full court, and he accepted the responsibility of doing the same to Dončić in Game 1.
“Trying to make him exert some energy was definitely helpful,” Steve Kerr said.
“Gary is a hell of a defender,” Wiggins said. “He is the type of defender that changes the game. So when he went out, you know, everyone has to step up.”
Wiggins isn’t trying to rip Dončić’s dribble or even create a turnover. He just wants to force Dončić to turn a couple of times, to bleed the shot clock of some precious seconds, to help slowly fatigue him over the course of a game. The Mavericks play at the slowest pace in the NBA. Dončić operates patiently and comfortably. This is a tactic to annoy him a bit.
Here is the end of that possession. It’s nothing spectacular, certainly not among Wiggins’ 10 best defensive possessions in Game 1. But his ball pressure and deft navigation of a few Dorian Finney-Smith screens force Dončić to reroute his dribble a few times. He eventually gets Wiggins switched off him but passes off the possession into a missed Reggie Bullock midranger.
Dončić went 6-of-18 shooting in Game 1. He committed seven turnovers. The Mavericks were outscored by 30 points in his 35 minutes. His 20 points were the fewest he’s scored in these playoffs. This was his least impactful showing.
“Great job,” Dončić said. “That’s it. That’s all I’ve got to say. They did a great job.”
It was a five-man effort at all times. But the national noise in the days leading up to this series questioned whether the Warriors had anyone with even a prayer of staying with Dončić in isolation. The tape from the regular season hinted at Wiggins. He guarded Dončić reasonably well in all four matchups and has pretty quietly morphed into one of the better wing defenders in the NBA. He received All-Defense votes a season ago.
“That’s why he was the No. 1 pick,” Klay Thompson said. “You can’t teach that athleticism. You can’t teach that length. You can’t teach his timing. I’m just happy the world is getting to see who he really is. That’s an incredible wing player. He will be like this for the next 10 years.”
Wiggins spent most of the night on Dončić, but his work during the game-breaking third quarter was the most noticeable. Dončić had two points and four turnovers in the third. The Warriors won that quarter by 10.
Here is the second of Dončić’s four third-quarter turnovers. Draymond Green strips him of the ball, which results in a fast break. But Green is in position to strip it only because Wiggins hounds Dončić 40 feet from the hoop, slides with him well and forces a desperate stop-and-go move into trouble.
This is the fourth of Dončić’s four third-quarter turnovers. The Warriors’ lead has spiked to 18. Wiggins, off an inbound pass, is again picking up Dončić full court. Dončić is strong and crafty, but he isn’t explosively fast. Wiggins is quicker. So he’s comfortable pressing up without fear of getting beaten off the dribble.
Wiggins tracks him the length of the court, eludes another screen, guides Dončić into traffic, then pogo-sticks into the air to tip away one of Dončić’s passes into a steal.
The Mavericks, of course, are trying to get Wiggins off of Doncic when the opportunity presents itself. They targeted Curry, Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney at different times in Game 1. There were several possessions when Wiggins was forced to pass Dončić off to someone else. But he tried to fight over the top, didn’t soft switch and often raced back into the action to either keep Dončić as his assignment or make an impact as a help defender.
Here is an example from that dominant third quarter. Wiggins gets picked off by a Spencer Dinwiddie screen up top and Dončić curls right past Curry for an open runway to the rim with only Poole in his immediate path. But Wiggins flies back into the fray from the top of the key and gets a contest at the rim to help force a miss.
“He was moving them puppies tonight,” Thompson said of Wiggins’ activity.
The Warriors were actively avoiding an overconfident tone postgame. Kerr said they are “under no illusions” that they’ve figured out Dončić. Thompson mentioned the extra couple of days of rest the Warriors had over the Mavericks and reminded reporters of the 2-0 series deficit Dallas just overcame to beat the Suns.
“Luka’s tough,” Curry said. “He still finds a way to control possessions. You’ve got to assume he’ll shoot a little bit better. But Wiggs was relentless. Every possession, he was out there on him. That’s all we really want. Even if Luka has his numbers, you just want to feel like he had to work for everything. We have to be able to help him on the backside of our rotations, and they want to try to bring me and JP into the pick-and-rolls. But at point of attack, Wiggs was awesome and he’s shown what he’s capable of on that end of the floor.”
2. The teamwide defense
Maxi Kleber picked up his third foul in the middle of the second quarter. Jason Kidd didn’t want to go back to Dwight Powell. So the Mavericks went ultra-small, surrounding Dončić with Dinwiddie, Finney-Smith, Bullock and Jalen Brunson.
That’s the type of opposing unit that is just begging for the Warriors to counter with the small-ball attack of Curry, Poole, Thompson, Wiggins and Green. But Kerr didn’t go small. He stuck with Kevon Looney, who started the game and played another 28 minutes after his career-high 35 to close out Memphis.
It is clear, after testing various starting lineups, the Warriors are once again tilting toward the reliable Looney because, within this current core, he has emerged as an essential piece of their best defensive units, and Kerr tends to lean on defense when the chips are down.
That worked in Game 1 against the Mavericks. Looney survived against the Powell, Kleber and small-ball lineups. Dončić targeted him a few times, but he held his own. The Warriors outrebounded Dallas 51-35 and had a defensive rating of 90.6 for the game.
Wiggins was the point man against Dončić. Thompson held steady on a few post-ups. Looney provided the backbone behind the play. Curry led the team with 12 rebounds. Green opened on Brunson and flew around like a free safety at various moments, including this spectacular block to close the first quarter.
Watch him try to alert Curry that a pin-in screen is coming in the corner and then — doubting Curry will be able to contest it well enough — fly over and swat it out of bounds.
3. Poole’s importance
Without the roaming Jaren Jackson Jr. or the awaiting Steven Adams, suddenly Poole had a ton more room to slash into the paint and finish in a variety of acrobatic ways. He finished with 19 points in 26 minutes off the bench, making eight of his 12 shots, six of those directly at the rim.
It is crucial for the Warriors offense that Poole delivers that type of secondary scoring and playmaking — three assists — in this series. But, in the closer games, his defense will be under a microscope. Dallas attacked him plenty in Game 1 with Dončić, Brunson and Dinwiddie. He was scored on a few times and was called for five fouls.
“They were definitely attacking him,” Kerr said. “He got five fouls. I thought he had a couple of tough calls, but he can do better showing his hands. Sometimes, you get your hands out like this and a player, you know, bowls into you, you’re the one that gets the call because it looks like you’re reaching. If you can show your hands, then you’re more likely to not get called for a foul, and I think that’s something he can probably do better next game.”
4. Stat of note
The Mavericks went 3 of 19 from 3 in the first quarter and 11 of 48 from deep overall, a putrid 22 percent. There were some rushed looks, some contested looks and even that blocked shot in the corner. But there were also several wide-open misses from capable shooters. If you were creating the formula for a Dallas response in Game 2, it starts with hitting those open shots.
5. Quote of note
Wiggins delivered a postgame quote that might delight the analytically inclined Warriors followers: “I’m trying to get away from the midrange right now.”
“I was just joking,” Wiggins said. “I’m still going to shoot it.”
(Photo of Kevon Looney blocking Luka Dončić’s shot: Harry How / Getty Images)