Thompson: If Playoff Andrew Wiggins is back, Warriors’ loss to Suns was a big win

SAN FRANCISCO — The fourth quarter began with the Warriors down 19 points. Steve Kerr went with a small lineup, four wing players and Draymond Green at center, to try to jump-start some sort of positivity.

Visiting Phoenix, playing without most of its key players, did the opposite. Dario Šarić, at 6-foot-10, and Jock Landale, at 6-foot-11, anchored the Suns’ lineup to start the final stanza. And through some motions and screens, they were able to get Landale in the post against Andrew Wiggins, who is about four inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than the Suns’ center.

It worked like a charm. For Wiggins.

“They think because I’m skinny,” Wiggins said, breaking into a smile. “I like banging down there.”

Wiggins drew two offensive fouls on Landale, who tried to overpower the Warriors’ forward in the post. Being physical, offering resistance, having his strength and physicality challenged, was like caffeine for his game.

Entering the fourth quarter, Wiggins was 4-for-12 from the field with 8 points. He was well into his second game back and still not quite himself. So he locked in on the defensive end of the court and jolted himself back into a semblance of his championship version of him.

Before long, Landale was out of the game, and Wiggins was picking up full court. Phoenix didn’t have point guard Chris Paul, or his backup Cameron Payne, or superstar Devin Booker. The reserves the Suns did have on the court had their hands full with this version of Wiggins. Energized. Aggressive. Effective.

If a silver lining exists in Tuesday’s 125-113 loss to Phoenix, one of the worst of the season, it’s the welcomed sight of lockdown Wiggins. It’s been a while. But it was a microcosm of the solution for the Warriors; intimacy with mediocrity. Change happened on defence. Change coincided with a ramping up of urgency and desperation. Change included Wiggins locking up.

“My offense was so off,” Wiggins said, “I had to do something.”

Wiggins finished with five steals, four in the fourth quarter. His pressure was the spear of a defense that had Phoenix backups struggling to get the ball past halfcourt. As a result, the Warriors nearly stole a game they trailed by as much as 27.

Wiggins missed 15 games, most of them with an adductor injury and the last batch with an illness that took down his household. It was the most time he’s missed in a single stretch for his entire career. He missed 21 games in his first eight seasons. So this recent experience was all new to him.

His expectation was that he’d get back on the court and be himself shortly thereafter. For Wiggins, all it usually takes is a few trips up and down. But this journey has been far more laborious. His inexperience of him with time off taught him a lesson about the difficulty of stepping back into the fray. But in the most optimal view after such a disappointing performance, Wiggins found his edge. And the Warriors desperately need it.

Stephen Curry is back. They essentially survived his absence from the shoulder surgery. If this season is to turn up, like so many expect, it’s going to begin with him and Wiggins. Green held down the fort while they were out. Klay Thompson has come alive. Jordan Poole needs them to come and divert some of the defense’s attention. The Warriors need Playoff Wiggins alongside MVP Curry. Tuesday’s loss might have been the jolt Wiggins needed.

“I think for him individually, and anybody coming back from an injury,” Curry said, “you’ve got to remind your body what it’s like to meet that level of intensity. It’s so hard to simulate that even in practice or scrimmages or in the conditioning stuff that you do. … Everybody 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, you get a little bit stronger, a little bit stronger. I think he, hopefully, felt that (Tuesday night) and he will look a lot better.”

The Warriors now head back to the road, where they’ve been dreadful. They need Wiggins to find his form of him to change that trend.

Defense is the Warriors’ biggest issue on the road. This seasonactually, but especially on the road.

The Warriors allow 41.2 percent shooting from 3 on the road. Only San Antonio’s 3-point defense (42 percent) is worse. The Warriors allow 21.8 made free throws per game on the road, tied with Oklahoma City for the worst in the NBA. Opponents shoot 49.7 percent when the Warriors are visiting, which is 27th in the NBA.

The issue is perimeter defense. The Warriors have not been good at the point of attack, which starts a domino of issues — including the 22.8 fouls they commit and the 33.5 open 3-pointers they allow per road game, per NBA Stats. They need Wiggins to change that, be the player he was in the playoffs. When Wiggins is that guy, Green can focus on manning the paint and being an elite help defender — instead of having to become the on-ball defender and leaving the back of the Warriors’ defense more vulnerable. When Wiggins is that guy, they don’t have to rotate as much, which means they have fewer chances to blow the rotation and leave an open shooter.

Wiggins hasn’t been that guy for much of this season, even before his injury. Such was understandable. Championship hangovers are real. It’s hard to re-summon that level of intensity just a few months after giving everything you’ve got. It made sense for Wiggins to pace himself.

It also made sense for him to find himself by focusing on defence. Suddenly, Tuesday night, he was crashing the boards as we remember in the postseason. Suddenly, it felt like he was all over the floor. It began with him having to wrestle in the paint with a center and picking up full court on defense. Conditioning and energy have been hard to sustain for Wiggins as he recovers and finds his rhythm. But he found a way to summon it against the Suns. He’s an incredible athlete and the Warriors just looked different when he unleashed it defensively.

“I just think,” Kerr said, “the level of ball pressure and intensity that he showed in the second half, especially (in the) fourth quarter — that’s who we need him to be. That’s who he was in the playoffs last year. Coming off this long layoff, he hasn’t looked right until that fourth quarter. I actually told the coaches I think this could be a good thing for us, honestly. You need to get a wake-up call. You need to be reminded how hard it is to win. And you need to understand the level of commitment to each other, to the game, that it takes to win a title. … Hopefully, this is the jolt that we need to get ourselves going because the first half of the season has been full of stops and starts.”

Undoubtedly, the Warriors need Wiggins’ offense, too. The Warriors’ offense has devolved into a buffet of 3-pointers as defenses press up on the perimeter looking to take away their greatest weapon. Instead of countering by attacking the inside, as they did in the postseason, the Warriors have responded this season mostly by taking tougher 3s or stepping back further. It’s the main reason they are, at the halfway point of their season, 19th in the NBA offensive rating, 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 all-time great offensive forces is the versatility to attack the middle of the defense. He is the Warriors’ primary point guard. Without him and Wiggins, it’s been basically Jordan Poole and Ty Jerome as the players who can get from the perimeter to the teeth of the defense. And Poole, with the defensive pressure he’s under and his looseness with the basketball, has had his struggles getting it done. Generally, the Warriors opt for the easy road — chucking 3-pointers.

When Curry went down on Dec. 14, the Warriors were fifth in 3-point percentage. Since then, they’ve been 15th. It’s not exactly breaking news that they’re worse at shooting 3-pointers without Curry (and Wiggins, who is having a career year from behind the arc). But what’s been problematic is they average even more 3s without their best shooters. When Curry went out, they were averaging 43.2 per game. Since then, 43.7.

Of the Warriors’ field-goal attempts this season, 48.2 percent have been from 3. But in the postseason, when defenses are best and teams are determined to take away their 3-pointer, just 43.3 percent of their shots were from 3.

A big part of that was Wiggins being their counter to the aggressive defenses seeking to take away 3s. He’s one of their few 2-point specialists who can go get a bucket. He’s a professional scorer who can finish at the rim, hit mid-range jumpers and create shots for himself in isolation. He was ideal.

The Warriors need that Wiggins now. If the loss to Phoenix triggered his return, then it might actually be the best loss of the season.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Steph Curry returns, but Warriors still lose to the depleted Suns

(Photo: Cary Edmondson/USA Today)

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