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Zulgad: Andrew Wiggins makes himself impossible to ignore with stellar performance

MINNEAPOLIS – As Karl-Anthony Towns struggled for a second consecutive game Wednesday night in Game 2 of the Wolves’ first-round playoff loss at Houston, TNT studio analysts Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal spent much of their air time focusing on the first-overall pick in the 2015 draft and what was going wrong.

There was no focus on the other top-overall pick on the Wolves’ roster. I don’t believe Andrew Wiggins’ name, or his 13-point performance in 31 minutes, ever crossed the lips of Barkley or O’Neal.

It wasn’t because Wiggins was all that productive and it wasn’t because he was awful. It was more an indication of the fact that Wiggins has gotten to the point where he’s often a non-factor in the mind of  former NBA stars like Barkley and O’Neal. His far-too-often apathetic approach means the focus is reserved for a guy like Towns, who is still considered on track to be a superstar.

Maybe Wiggins took note of that and decided he was tired of being ignored. Whatever the case, he delivered a performance in the Wolves’ convincing 121-105 victory over Houston in Game 3 Saturday night that served as a reminder of what the first pick in the 2014 draft can do when he sets his mind to it.

Wiggins scored 20 points, making 7-of-11 shots from the field, including 4-of-6 from three-point range, grabbed five rebounds, added five assists and blocked an Eric Gordon layup attempt late in the third quarter. The block led to a Jeff Teague driving layup that gave the Wolves a 12-point lead entering the fourth quarter and ignited the announced sellout crowd of 18,978 at Target Center that was watching the Wolves’ first home playoff game since 2004.

“Andrew played very well,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He played very well down the stretch, he’s played well in the playoffs. He’s playing an all-around game. The rebounding was good and the playmaking. He had five assists, he was trusting the pass, he was making the right read on double-teams. I thought that sort of became contagious with everyone.”

This was the type of effort expected from a player who will be in the first season of a maximum contract (five-years, $146 million) starting in 2018-19.

“He’s just going out there and being aggressive on both ends of the floor, which is huge for us,” Butler said. “But we want him to take the shots that we all know he can make, obviously, he knows that he can make and we’ll continue to feed him the basketball.”

Much was made last offseason of the fact that before Wiggins signed his max deal that Wolves owner Glen Taylor wanted to sit down with Wiggins, look him in the eye and get a commitment that he would be completely dedicated to reaching his potential. But far too often this season Wiggins looked disinterested and more than happy to be a passenger on a ship being steered by Jimmy Butler and Towns.

That definitely was not the case on Saturday as the Wolves won their first playoff game since beating the Lakers in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals on May 29, 2004 at Target Center. Two days later, the Wolves were eliminated by the Lakers in Game 6 in Los Angeles and the next season they began a 13-year postseason drought.

Wiggins had 18 points, six rebounds and an assist in the Wolves’ 104-101 loss to the Rockets in Game 1 of this series and added eight rebounds and three assists to go with his nondescript 13-point performance in a 102-82 loss in Game 2.

But Wiggins helped set the tone on Saturday by scoring 10 points in the opening quarter, making both of his three-point shots and 3-of-4 overall. Only Butler had more points (11) than Wiggins in the quarter and Jeff Teague (28 points) and Butler (23 points) joined Wiggins in scoring 20 or more on Saturday.

“I’m just trying to stay aggressive,” Wiggins said. “Trying to do whatever I can to help the team win really and try to get after it defensively.”

That sounds so simple and yet it’s the key to Wiggins’ game. When he isn’t aggressive, he becomes a non-factor. When he plays like he did on Saturday, Wiggins looks like he can be a key part of this franchise for years to come.

After a strong showing during his rookie season against Cleveland, Wiggins referred to it as a “motivation game.” That was in large part because the Cavaliers had dealt Wiggins to the Wolves that summer in the Kevin Love trade and this was Wiggins’ chance to show LeBron James what he could do. Saturday was another example of a game that provided plenty of motivation, considering a loss would have left the Wolves one loss from being swept out of the first round.

“I like games like this,” Wiggins said. “It’s crucial, there’s a lot on the line. I play good under pressure.”

Towns, who had 18 points and 16 rebounds on Saturday after being held to a combined 13 points in Games 1 and 2, offered praise for his teammate.

“That’s who he is,” Towns said of Wiggins. “A lot of people doubt him and everything and he don’t hear all the chatter and everything. He goes straight to the gym, he works on his craft every day. He’s a tremendous worker and he goes in there every day and does his job. Regardless of the situation, he knows when his name is called, he’ll hit those shots. We all have that same confidence in him.”

Truth be told, that confidence will be far greater if Wiggins can continue to play the way he did Saturday.


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