Entering this series, Luka Dončić’s heft, weight and skill were expected to overwhelm Andrew Wiggins. Instead, Wiggins’ capstone moment in his jewel of a playoff series came during Golden State’s 109-100 victory at the expense of the 23-year-old Dončić.
Wiggins and Dončić are the inverses of one another. Luka could be the best player in The Association’s history with a vertical leap that could be measured under a microscope. That’s been one of the questions surrounding him since he arrived in 2018. It shouldn’t have been enough for Phoenix or Sacramento to avoid drafting him, but his terrestrial game has been the only thing that’s kept him from achieving legendary status.
It hasn’t curbed his offensive productivity. He’s the NBA’s leading playoff scorer. On the other hand, he plays All-Star Game-caliber defense, which results in teams hunting him through switches. Phoenix successfully attacked Luka in the first round until Chris Paul hit his expiration date. Steph Curry saw that and has eaten him alive as well. We’re nitpicking, but the bar is high when we’re talking about becoming the best player on the planet. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and even Nikola Jokić, thanks partly to his length, have unlocked a defensive fortitude that has elevated them to a higher plane of team basketball.
Wiggins entered the NBA as a phenom possessing cheat-code athleticism and a hollow trick bag. Before he was even a twinkle in Kansas’ eye, Wiggins was proclaimed Maple Jordan. But eventually, Embiid overshadowed him and defenders realized that Wiggins was utterly stymied if his straight-line drives to the rim could be denied. Still, he was the No. 1 pick in 2014 partly because he had the tools to also be an All-NBA defender.
But back to the scene of the crime. In an instant, the destinies of Wiggins and Dončić collided at the rim on Sunday night when Wiggins blew past a closeout by Reggie Bullock and lifted off from just inside the free throw line. To his credit, Luka tried to act as a deterrent, but wound up crumpling once Wiggins phased through him.
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Wiggins sailed past him, flushed it with one hand and the American Airlines Center staff is still picking up pieces of Luka as of Monday morning. The time of death for Dallas’ season came at 6:38 in the fourth quarter. Officials originally called an offensive foul, but withdrew all charges after Steve Kerr challenged the call.
Over the years, we’ve gotten used to the Warriors going nuclear and vaporizing opponents from long range. Wiggins’ rim detonation was up close and personal. There was still half a fourth quarter remaining, but the oxygen levels inside the arena dropped after that and a 3-0 lead in the series is basketball death.
Wiggins didn’t assassinate the Mavs’ season alone, but he should be on a wanted poster alongside the rest of Golden State’s Death Lineup, who was on the floor for that punctuation dunk.
You could hit them all with a RICO charge for their selfless passing and eager participation in setting up Luka’s demise. Draymond Green set the screen at the top of the key that Curry used to blow past Dorian Finney-Smith and Jalen Brunson. Then Curry’s drive dragged Luka into the paint to provide help-side defense. Instead of taking the tough layup, Curry kicked it out to Wiggins.
Curry scored 31 points and dished 11 assists, including the Luka killer. Wiggins accumulated 27 points and nabbed 11 rebounds, including six offensive boards.
Afterward, Dončić reflected on Wiggins’ dunk, facetiously telling the media, “I mean, I got hit a little bit, but that was impressive, I’m not going to lie. I saw the video again, I was like, ooh. That was pretty incredible. I wish I had those bunnies.”
Wiggins’ athleticism is a valuable counter to the Splash Brothers’ perimeter gravity, Draymond Green’s smash mouth style of play and Kevon Looney’s vertical defense. A team-up hasn’t been this big for anyone’s career rejuvenation since Robert Downey Jr. joined the Avengers.
Four-fifths of the Death Lineup was also on the floor for their 10-0 run in the first half. Dallas led by nine when Klay Thompson checked in at the 4:08 mark. Along with Looney, Poole, Curry, Wiggins and Green, they went on a furious run, took the lead at the 1:51 mark and never relinquished it.
Luka is breaking down walls for slow-twitch European guards. But if he’s going to break through in the West, he needs better athletes surrounding him. This Mavs team feels like the ‘07 Cavaliers. They’re headlined by a few overachievers such as Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie, but those two would be on the bench mob in Miami or Golden State or Boston.
Dallas attempted the second-fewest field goal attempts in the restricted area in the regular season and this postseason while shooting a higher frequency of 3-pointers than any other team. But in Game 3, Max Kleber, Davis Bertans and Reggie Bullock combined to miss all 14 of their attempts. Jordan Poole struggled until hammering the nail into Dallas’ coffin with a corner 3 inside the final minute of regulation. The Mavericks have the seeds of a championship-caliber unit, but the Warriors are still a few light years ahead.