Stephen Curry did not hit a single three-pointer against the Boston Celtics on Monday night, marking his first-ever playoff game without a longball and breaking a 233-game streak with at least a single make from deep. The Warriors, as a team, shot 9-for-40 from three, took less than half as many free throws as the Celtics, and lost their beloved third quarter by double digits. Draymond Green fouled out for the third time in five games, while Jayson Tatum finally made at least half of his shots. All of those grim stats are pointing towards a clear Warriors loss, and yet they smoked the Celtics.
If Game 4 was all about Steph Curry profaning the laws of basketball with the sort of beautiful, precise shotmaking the series had lacked through its first three games, Game 5 was a welcome return to the mud. This tends to be the determinative game in an even series, and the Warriors are now on the brink of their fourth title in seven years because they were able to outmuck the Celtics, thanks primarily to a newcomer. They are one win away from securing the Curry-Green-Thompson core’s comeback championship because of the bidirectional excellence of a player once written off as hollow. They’re on the cusp of winning it all thanks to Andrew Wiggins.
The pre-Warriors version of Wiggins presented as, well, one of the players in the league least suited to the Warriors’ style. Playing around Steph Curry requires quick decision making, movement, court vision, and the passing skill to connect everything together. Wiggins is violently athletic, yet his indifference towards passing the rock in almost any scenario and his iffy, ball-stopping shot profile seemed to make him a questionable fit alongside three players who play like the Warriors’ guys do. The process hasn’t always been smooth, but Wiggins has found his spot in the Warriors’ best lineups by finding the right gaps to occupy and learning when to apply pressure to the defense. Sometimes, the movement system gets stymied, and Wiggins’s one-on-one game offers an escape valve. His shooting percentages have decreased with each successive Warriors playoff series, though the Finals have pretty clearly been his best round. He grabbed 16 boards in Game 4, then followed it up with a 26-point, 13-rebound, two-steal night in Game 5, a game in which he also spearheaded a killer defensive performance.
About all that aforementioned mud: Boston ceded a quick double-digit lead, managed just 39 nervous points in the first half, and were staggered by Draymond Green and Wiggins’s force. Curry’s big Game 4 forced Ime Udoka to finally send double teams at Curry, more aggressively chasing him at the line and accepting the Warriors’ 4-on-3 game as the cost of doing so. Green has had such a quiet—that’s probably the wrong word—series on the court because the Celtics were able to resist the temptation of tilting themselves off their defensive axis to shut down Curry through the first four games. That changed in Game 5, and though the Celtics were lucky that none of Warriors’ shooters besides Thompson could punish them for doubling Curry (non-Thompson starters shot 0-for-19 from three), they did leave space for Green and Wiggins to make plays for either themselves or their teammates. Green chose the teammates; Wiggins did it himself.
Against the locked-in, hyperaware Celtics defense, the Warriors are prone to go through these grim stretches where they seem to either settle for, or be forced into, nothing but lightly to severely contested three-pointers. Sometimes Curry can’t get loose, or the Celtics make the right decision on four straight screens, and the Warriors then have to find some junk with eight seconds left on the shot clock. They are facing an indisputable athleticism deficit in the Finals, though they might have the best athlete in this series. Wiggins’s utility as a driver has never been more crucial to the Warriors’ success than it is in this round. He’s so hard to keep out of the paint, especially when you absolutely cannot send any help from the perimeter at any cost because you have two of your best defenders tasked with staring at Curry everywhere within 50 feet of the hoop. Wiggins knows he’s got a clean runway, so he takes it.
The Celtics recovered from their 12-point halftime deficit to take it directly to the Warriors in the third quarter. Jayson Tatum was deadly, and the defense reached a new intensity. Golden State couldn’t engineer anything they wanted to, looking hesitant and overwhelmed. The Warriors’ 16-point first half lead morphed into a five-point deficit that felt like 20, since the Warriors are the team that is supposed to dominate third quarters, not get punked. Boston got everything they wanted, and after the Game 1 comeback they pulled off and the smothering Game 3 win, Game 5 seemed like it was lurching their way. Seizing the lead after being down by that much comes with undeniable momentum. Boston is younger, more athletic, and theoretically hungrier. If the Warriors were going to respond, they would have to find a way to crack Boston at their best.
Again, it was Wiggins, this time on defense, and on the glass. Wiggins played the entire competitive portion of the second half, locking Jayson Tatum down in the fourth quarter. He led the game in rebounding for the second straight night. Tatum looked shaken by Wiggins’s pressure. He either passed it off too quickly or forced bad shots when Wiggins was on him, then didn’t make the best reads when attacking Curry on a switch. The Warriors lived with Boston attacking Curry to a degree they never have before in the Finals because they have such talented help defenders. Wiggins was, of course, tremendous on the ball in Game 5, though I was just as impressed with his work as a recoverer, hedger, and helper. He got into passing lanes and forced the Celtics to overthink things. He had two steals, though he had a hand in forcing 18 Boston turnovers. As was the case with the end of Game 4, it’s fair to ask whether Boston played poorly or Golden State defended well. And just as it was with Game 4, the Warriors’ defense, not Celtics’ brain flatulence, got them the win.
Wiggins had the moment of the night, when he sealed the win with a huge jam. Team athleticism difference only matters so much when you have a guy who can do this.
For all the attention paid to Curry’s shooting and Tatum’s playmaking, these Finals are also a matchup between the two best defenses in the NBA. They are each so good at taking away their opponents’ best stuff, a dynamic that highlights how incredible Wiggins has been: he’s shut down Jayson Tatum on defense while punishing the Celtics for taking away Curry on offense. The guy who seemed like such an ersatz fit for the Warriors has turned out to be exactly the player they need against a tremendously difficult opponent, and he’s one win away from confirming that with a ring.