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What we learned in Andrew Wiggins’ debut, new-look Warriors’ close loss to Lakers

© Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

This should not have been an entertaining game. For a hearty chunk of the third quarter, it was defined by a bumbling, stumbling, patchwork Warriors team that seemed it was well on its way to a sizable loss to the first-place Lakers. And then, despite having no business to do so, the Warriors made a game out of it, losing 125-120.

For a regular season game that those Lakers were destined to win, there was a unique energy in the building. Any LeBron James or Lakers visitation is destined to bring that, but the debut of Andrew Wiggins and the smorgasbord of G-League talent the Warriors brought up to surround him and fill out their “roster” for the time being threw a little cayenne on an otherwise blandish night. There was also the element of the Warriors’ Kobe and Gianna Bryant tributes, with Stephen Curry wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey on the bench.

For a game that seemed like it would be defined by how Andrew Wiggins played, it felt like it was about everyone but him.

To be sure, Wiggins had a solid debut — not much that roused the mostly slumberous crowd from its seat — but Saturday night was the “other guys” showcase.

Chriss did what he’s done best all season: rim-running.

He had 20 first-half points with a DeAndre Jordan-esque level of efficiency, going 9-of-10 from the field, and knocking down his one three-point and free throw attempt. He also tallied four rebounds and a steal, and more than anything was a source of entertainment in an opening half which, outside of a hilarious Alen Smailagic missed dunk, was sleepy.

Those Chriss moments, which featured a handful of dunks, were the loudest the Chase Center got outside of an Alex Caruso-for-LeBron James substitution. That substitution preceded Wiggins’ return to the game which went all but unnoticed.

Chriss’ effort and Wiggins above-averageness, along with a few first-career points from Alex Norvell Jr. on a pair of three-pointers (against the same Lakers team where he made his NBA debut earlier this season), Juan Toscano-Anderson on a step-into-it three, and first Warriors points for Jeremy Pargo, who last played an NBA game in 2013.

Then the second half started and whatever air that theoretically existed at Chase Center was vacuum-removed from the building until late in the quarter, by which point the Warriors cut the deficit to 96-84.

The Lakers opened the second half on a 13-0 run while the Warriors took turns finding out who could look better missing shots. You can’t teach missed layups like the ones that were missed by Golden State in the third quarter. That’s all feel.

To be fair to the Santa Cruz Warriors All-Star Team plus Andrew Wiggins (and Kevon Looney and Eric Paschall), it wasn’t a fair fight, and they made it competitive.

The Warriors, who have zero incentive to win, and all the incentive to stay under the luxury tax, cobbled together a roster after trading away six frequently-utilized players (Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Jacob Evans III, Omari Spellman and D’Angelo Russell) for Wiggins and draft picks.

For a team, which, outside of Wiggins, Looney and Chriss, had a combined 306 NBA games played — an average of 38 games apiece — it was a genuinely impressive performance.

Here’s that NBA game breakdown coming into tonight:

Juan Toscano-Anderson – 0 games

Zach Norvell Jr. – 2 games

Alen Smailagic – 9 games

Ky Bowman – 37 games

Jordan Poole – 45 games

Eric Paschall – 47 games

Jeremy Pargo – 83 games (first since March 30, 2013 with Philadelphia 76ers)

Damion Lee – 83 games

Chriss, after that red-hot first half, finished with 26 points and 9 rebounds. Wiggins had 21 points in 31 minutes. Norvell Jr. (7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assist, 2 steals) looked, at the very least, serviceable, and Toscano-Anderson looked like the energy glut that he was in the Summer League.

He’s a long wing player with speed, a proclivity and intelligence towards defense, and showed that his 27.7 three-point shooting percentage in the G-League might not accurately represent his shooting ability. He had 5 points (made his one three-point attempt) on 2-of-5 shooting, along with pairs of rebounds and assists.

Pargo, in his first NBA action since 2013, looked, as you would expect, like a guy who would like to stay in the league. He wasn’t earth-shatteringly good by any standard, but he handled the ball confidently and had 6 points (3-of-6 shooting), 4 assists, 2 rebounds and a steal in his 14 minutes.

And all those misfits managed to awaken the crowd on a night when they seemed to have lost the game a handful of times. With 3:10 left, the Warriors trailed just 116-111, having been led by a career-high 10 assists from Ky Bowman (along 7 points, 2 rebounds), and one of those two-handed, he-might-break-the-rim Paschall dunks.

Despite having a corner three revoked after review in the first half (he stepped out), Poole got hot late, finishing with 17 points (7-of-11, 3-of-7 from 3-pt) and 3 assists.

And of course, the Lakers were good enough. Not good, but beat-the-Warriors-comfortably good.

LeBron James had a 22-8-11 line (along with seven turnovers), Anthony Davis had 27 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists, but until late, it was Avery Bradley, who nailed a pair of early threes, who led the their scoring effort with 21 points (7-of-11, 5-of-7 from 3-pt).

Until that late charge, there was nothing totally eye-popping, or “wow, you really missed this one” to take from the loss. But that late surge belied an identity that may define this new batch of Warriors, and hopefully, rubs off on Wiggins.

In Chriss, Lee, Bowman, Pargo, Smailagic, Poole and Norvell Jr., you’ve now got this bizarre group of hungry, mostly young players. Many of whom aren’t sure if they’ll be back in the NBA, let alone with the Warriors.

But Wiggins — outside of his costly 5-of-9 free throw shooting — looked decent, had a handful of good possessions, and those new guys at least showed a hint of a hint that they could be worth keeping around. Norvell Jr. seems like a lock for a second 10-day contract, and Toscano-Anderson will probably become a crowd favorite in this dreary final stretch of the year.

The biggest takeaway?

The Warriors have found a player in Wiggins, who actually fits into their scheme, unlike Russell. As Steve Kerr said not-so-subtly, Wiggins plays into that up-tempo style they prefer, whereas Russell is all-ball, slow-it-down, James Harden-lite. It’s a slow brand of basketball and disliked by Kerr as much as any fan of the NBA.

For Wiggins’ flaws (his shooting, and questionable effort from his time in Minnesota), he is still a very talented player who can score the ball just about by himself. He’s with an exponentially more competent organization which will be wholeheartedly committed to maximizing his potential, and teammates who will demand the most out of him. At this juncture, there should be mostly optimism on the Wiggins front.

Second-biggest takeaway?

Alen Smailagic believes he can dunk from anywhere on the court despite having the vertical of that crafty dad who plays pickup at the YMCA.

His confidence knows no bounds, and while it often results in hilarity like his first half dunk failure — and a similar event in the second half when he went for a Dr. J-like palm-dunk and traveled before he could get anywhere near the hoop — he’s got an edge and a skillset to become a seriously important role player for the Warriors when they’re actually competing for something.

On the possession after that travel, he knocked down a three from the top of the arc and expressed what seemed like his version of flexing on the Lakers.

In this weird season, which still has quite a ways to go, it’s that weirdness, that hilarious confidence and moments of “he can do that?” that will make these last few months worth following.


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