By: Jake Paynting
Heading in to the Minnesota Timberwolves first playoff birth since 2004, there were plenty of unanswered questions.
Is Karl-Anthony Towns ready to put his big boy pants on against Clint Capela and the Houston Rockets? Can Jimmy Butler provide the same sort of value he did throughout the regular season? Does coach Tom Thibodeau have any adjustments up his sleeve against the team with the best record in the league?
Well, while the answers to those questions were beginning to be revealed, the real story crept in through the back door; Andrew Wiggins.
There has been a plethora of criticism and speculation around the max contract he was handed last summer, but the 23-year-old has hit back over the opening three playoff games with a string of performances that fans have been howling (pun intended) for all season.
In his first postseason taste, Maple Jordan dropped 18 points (7-15 FG, 1-3 3PM) and six rebounds. He looked encouragingly active on both ends of the floor and filled the gaps perfectly between a struggling Towns and Butler. As you can see below, the athletic freak also seemed to be one of the few Wolves who is capable of punishing Rockets when they send a smaller guard to man a wing/big.
However impressive this game was, we have all seen Andrew Wiggins have games like this. In fact, we have seen flashes of this intensity on an even greater scale. The problem is we rarely see him engaged like this for more than a handful of outings scattered throughout a season.
His defense has been better in his fourth campaign, as demonstrated by his improvement in the defensive rating numbers (110.4 in 16-17' to 107.6 in 17-18') and the total defensive win share numbers (1.6 to 2.6), but lately it has been insanely locked in. Plays like this where Wiggins keeps his hands away from a searching James Harden and disrupts the shot with a quick challenge have become regular playoff viewing:
Game two on the road wasn't a very fun outing for any of the Wolves organization, but Wiggins' 13 points came on a respectable 6-14 shooting, his eight rebounds and three assists were well above his career averages and he somehow posted a stellar 92.2 defensive rating. Wiggins has seamlessly switched between guarding the electric duo of Harden and Chris Paul to manning the pure shooters like Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker with a rare staunchness.
A man who is known for staunchness, Taj Gibson, had high praise for Wiggins in that regard when speaking with Jace Frederick.
"He's just starting to really take the game to a new level as far as just taking his match-up serious. He's starting to really dislike the guy in the other jersey. They're not smacking fives before the game. He's really into the hunt of the game and I'm loving it." Gibson said.
Small things like the clip below are really massive in the big picture, Wiggins closes out to Ariza and shuts down the potential triple before forcing the Rockets forward into a Karl-Anthony Towns brick wall and effectively keeping touch with a rolling Clint Capela, coming away with the board to ice another fantastic defensive possession:
Wiggins saved his best performance of the series - possibly even his career - for the first playoff win in 5076 days. This time he didn't sneak in the back door, he kicked the back door down and incinerated it into a pile of ashes.
The playoff stud dropped 20 points (7-11 FG, 4-6 3PM), 5 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal and a block while grabbing the first Target Center playoff victory since Kevin Garnett was gracing the hardwood. Again, he was all over the floor - punishing defenses on the block, hitting his long bombs and locking down on defense.
We could pick out a fistful of plays to highlight his superb night, like when he froze Gerald Green on the jab step before blasting toward the rim, or his big 3-pointer late in the fourth to truly bury the Rockets. However, It's this piece of effort and want-to to deny Eric Gordon however that personifies the Andrew Wiggins we have seen all series long:
This series was predicted to be a sweep in favor of the team from Texas, but Andrew Wiggins has already made sure that won't happen. If he can keep this level of engagement and intensity up going forward, the Timberwolves are one huge step closer to pulling off the biggest upset in franchise history.
Yack em' Wigs.