Playoff Andrew Wiggins: Is this what Wolves fans were promised?

Through Game 3 of the first-round Timberwolves-Rockets series, Andrew Wiggins has been one of the best players on the court. Is this the Wiggins for which Wolves fans have been waiting?

Let’s get this out of the way: I’ve been as tough on Andrew Wiggins as any Blog Boy out there, from when he was first drafted, all the way up to and including the current season.

But I’m elated to acknowledge that Wiggins has arguably been the most consistently productive player on the Timberwolves roster through the first three games of the first round series against the Houston Rockets.

The per-game averages are nice: 17 points (second on the team), 6.3 rebounds (also second), and three assists (third on the team). He’s shooting 50 percent (20-of-40) from the floor and has knocked down 41.7 percent of 3-point attempts (5-of-12).

But volume stats have never really been an issue for the career 19.7 point-per-game scorer. It’s the other stuff, the rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, and 3-point shooting, that matter the most when it comes to his growth and improvement.

Timberwolves fans (and Tom Thibodeau, for that matter) have been waiting for Wiggins to accept his role as one of the most dynamic third options in the league. And while there have been some memorable performances and strong stretches, Wiggins showed some regression in key areas during the 2017-18 regular season, as noted in the above-linked piece from just a few weeks ago.

Thus far in the playoffs, however, a hobbled Jimmy Butler and a Houston Rockets defense that is intensely focused on slowing down Karl-Anthony Towns, Wiggins has found space to operate. And when he’s had the chance to knock down an open 3-pointer or attack a defender one-on-one in space, he’s done just that.

Virtually all of his 3-point makes came in transition or on a pass out of the post, and they were all open looks. An open look from beyond the arc has never been automatic for Wiggins, outside of a couple of stretches, and Wiggins’ overall 3-point percentage dropped from 35.6 percent in 2016-17 to just 33.1 percent this season.

But so far this series, and especially in Game 3, Wiggins has been effective from long-range.

And while that’s the best way for Wiggins to stay involved, he has to be able to attack closeouts and score in one-on-one situations, especially as the Rockets load up on Towns and Butler. Houston’s going to make Wiggins, Taj Gibson, and Jeff Teague beat them, and Wiggins’ performance on Saturday night was exactly what the Wolves needed.

Here’s a clip from Game 1. Chris Paul is still a good defender, but has no business slowing down a determined Andrew Wiggins in a one-on-one, face-up situation. Here, Wiggins puts his head down and gets to the basket for a beautiful and-one as Paul overplays him on the perimeter.

And here are a pair of strong drives from the Game 3 win, coming on the heels of some made catch-and-shoot jump shots.

The first one features a Trevor Ariza, a solid wing defender, simply getting beaten by Wiggins’ strong hand. And Wiggins finishes past P.J. Tucker, another good wing defender.

Next, Wiggins finishes through the chest of Gerald Green, who was battling foul trouble. Wiggins doesn’t let the contact bother him, and he uses his length to get the bucket.

Now, a couple of passes from Wiggins that show what we can all hope is growth in the area of playmaking. First, from Game 1.

Wiggins gets into trouble in the paint but sees Jamal Crawford standing all by himself in the corner.

Again, this is simple stuff, and the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets, etc., have been doing this for years. But it’s a clear step in maturation for a guy who is just turned 23 years old.

In Game 2, Wiggins picks up his dribble with the intention of making a post entry pass to Towns. But the pass isn’t there as Clint Capela steps into the passing lane and P.J. Tucker is coming from underneath to double KAT.

Wiggins still fakes the pass and then delivers an on-target pass to Gibson, who is flashing through the lane and ultimately finishes at the rim.

In Game 3 on Saturday night, three of Wiggins’ five assists came on made 3-point field goals. This one to Butler shows Wiggins’ understanding that his drive was cut off, and rather than forcing a tough turnaround jumper (Wolves fans have seen far too many of those over the past four years), he makes the easy basketball play, which also happens to be the correct one.

And there you have it: Playoff Andrew Wiggins. If this version of Wiggins — the Game 3 version, especially — is here to stay, the Timberwolves will have a legitimate shot at pushnig this series to six or seven games.

After all, the Rockets aren’t about to stop double-teaming Towns, as that has largely worked. Butler was more aggressive in Game 3, but he won’t have anything thrown at him that he hasn’t already seen.

That means that Wiggins will continue to see semi-open looks and one-on-one opportunities. If he picks his spots to drive/create and knocks down enough open jumpers, then the Wolves will have themselves something resembling a third All-Star.

And if that’s the case … look out.