With a five-point lead and 48.2 seconds remaining Friday night in Detroit, Andrew Wiggins had an opportunity to ice the game. He dribbled to the top of the key, stepped back to create space, launched and missed.
Wiggins is going to miss shots because everybody does. What was far more significant to the Warriors, who hung on for a 105-102 win over the Pistons, was his reaction.
He stomped his foot. Punched his left hand with his right. He was visibly annoyed. This is welcome because, in the long view, the Warriors’ need for fierce Wiggs is considerably greater than their need for shot-making Wiggs.
Fierce Wiggs is the guy we’ve seen the past six games, dating to his explosive performance against his former team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, on Nov. 10 at Chase Center. He has been a revelation, and he was very present Friday night, with 27 points, five rebounds, two steals and a block.
“Huge,” said Jordan Poole, who scored a game-high 32 points.
“Wiggs and Jordan, knowing they had to score some points for us tonight and be the focal point offensively,” coach Steve Kerr said. “They both stepped up and did a great job.”
Wiggins was dropping his shoulder and shoving his way into the paint, welcoming the contact he knew would come. He scored 27 points, eight of them from the line, where he took a season-high 11 free throws.
“We loved his aggression,” Kerr said.
This is the Wiggs we’ve seen for the vast majority of the past six games. It’s as if he was listening when, in the wake of his 35-point outburst against the Timberwolves, he heard the pleas of teammate Stephen Curry and Kerr.
A couple days later, teammate Draymond Green echoed the words of Curry and Kerr.
Wiggins, 26, has responded over the last six games with perhaps his most encouraging stretch of offense since coming to the Warriors in 21 months ago, averaging 22.7 points on 55.3-percent shooting from the field.
Deducting his 3-point shot, which has been sub-mediocre, Wiggins is shooting an astonishing 66.2 percent inside the arc over the last six games. Fierce Wiggs is giving the Warriors some of what they used to get from a scoring machine named Kevin Durant.
“He’s a really good ISO player,” Poole said of Wiggins. “He can exploit the mismatches ... He was able to get a lot of paint touches and he got to the free throw line, which is huge, with eight points.
“He’s a big part of our offense and they tried to shut him out. Being able to get him to the free throw line early kind of opened up the rest of our game.”
Wiggins is not a pure shooter and never will be the overall scorer that KD is. But Fierce Wiggs is focusing on the best elements of his offense. He’s attacking the rim, dropping eight-foot floaters, pulling up for midrange shots and firing the occasional 3-ball. Drawing fouls is the bonus that comes with that.
The Warriors, now and later, when Klay Thompson and James Wiseman return to action, will need someone other than Curry and Poole to penetrate defenses. A third off-the-dribble threat, so crucial in the postseason, tends to put defenses on their heels.
Wiggins has the athleticism. His handle is adequate. His determination – exemplified by the drives that led to those free throws – is essential.
“I was trying to stay aggressive, trying to attack early and get in a good groove,” Wiggins said. “I got to the foul line early and it helped me throughout the game.”
In the hour after he demolished Minnesota last week, Wiggins vowed to stay aggressive, indicating that Fierce Wiggs would be a new thing. He has, for the most part, been true to his word.
The question, and it has followed Wiggins throughout his career, is whether this is sustainable. It’s six games old. There have been glimpses of ferocity in the past, but it generally fades into ordinary, a talented player seemingly satisfied with 15 points, four rebounds and one or two assists.
Wiggins has 66 games to answer that question. If his fury is anything like it was in the last six, the Warriors will gladly tolerate him missing a few shots along the way.