I’ve covered a lot of Hassan Whiteside moments over the last year. His emergence has been a bizarre twist on the NBA because he seems to be worthy of accolades and a big money deal this coming summer. And yet, there have been many games in which you marvel at his individual stats while wondering if they actually mean anything.
Was he just a looter in a riot or was he truly impacting the game? Did his blocked shots matter or was it like that time Darko Milicic was top 5 in blocks?
Tuesday night in Miami, Whiteside was truly affecting the game. He was blocking everything and it made the Wolves seemed to be out of ideas on what to do. Karl-Anthony Towns was hesitant inside. Gorgui Dieng looked like he was helping Whiteside practice his shot blocking. Whiteside even defended the pick-and-roll ball handler before recovering to swat a Nemanja Bjelica alley-oop lay-in attempt. There was a caution the Wolves needed to have around the basket.
Thanks to the defensive presence Ricky Rubio’s return to the court provided and some bad decisions by the Heat on offense, the Wolves had the lead with 5:20 left in the third quarter, but it seemed to be quite unstable. The Heat have been able to turn big swings into comfortable wins this season, so you can’t just let them hang around while the talent starts to win out. You have to knock them down and send a message.
That’s when Andrew Wiggins unleashed a moment that didn’t result in any points, but it managed to set the tone for the rest of the game. Up until that point, Wiggins was struggling. He had 13 points on 5-of-15 shooting. He missed a lot of shots inside, possibly wary of Whiteside’s presence as he put extra arc on shots after a series of hesitations. That was all done though.
It’s a missed dunk and it’s easy to overlook it because he didn’t complete the play. He also seemed to get poked in the eye by Whiteside with Hassan’s left hand before extending to challenge the dunk. But this is the example Wiggins has and it’s a reason why I don’t really buy into the criticism that he’s too passive. I think he’s calculated. I think he truly lets the game come to him and does a great job of recognizing when to put his stamp on the game.
This was one of those moments. This missed dunk reminded the Wolves there wasn’t a reason to be concerned with the guy who had eight blocks and would end up finishing with a triple-double. I asked Wiggins after the game if he was trying to send a message on that play.
“I’ll try to dunk on anybody,” Wiggins said before he laughed. “If I’m in the key and I’ve got the right footing, I’ll try to dunk on anybody. It doesn’t matter who it is.”
Much like I don’t buy the idea that Wiggins has a problem with passivity on the court, here’s another thing I don’t buy. I’m not buying Wiggins as this humble Canadian with the quiet “aw shucks” mentality. None of that is true about him. Well, he is Canadian. That part is true. The rest of it is bogus though. He’s mean and he has a mean streak. He’s cocky. He’s just waiting to unleash pain on his opponents.
You can pretend he’s humble all you want, but let me know if you think a humble man would jump from the dotted line to try to dunk on a guy who already has eight blocks in the game.
That’s not humble. That’s a killer. That stuff feeds into the mentality of this group. It’s part of the reason Towns doesn’t seem to be phased by anything thrown at him these first couple weeks. It’s why Shabazz Muhammad is able to be relentless in the way he attacks a second unit. It’s why Zach LaVine isn’t shaken by the missteps of a tougher position and shows the confidence moving forward that he’s figuring it out slowly.
The young guys are arrogant in a totally acceptable way. They’re confident their athleticism and youth can spark a new era of good basketball for this organization. It’s a mentality Sam Mitchell has helped instill in them because it’s just the way he approaches everything as well.
“It says something about our group that a guy can have a triple-double with 10 blocks and we still kept taking it in there,” Mitchell said following the win. “We’re going to keep taking them in there. You can’t block them all.”
Following that dunk attempt that would’ve melted Vine’s servers, the Wolves dominated the rest of the game. They weathered the run by the Heat to finish the third quarter and they dominated the fourth — putting up 41 points in the period. Wiggins led the way with 11 points on 3-of-6 from the field and 5-of-7 from the free throw line. He just kept attacking and attacking and attacking. He didn’t care that Whiteside was in there. He was going to get a shot up or get to the free throw line.
In Wiggins’ last seven games, he’s averaging 25.7 points on 49.1% from the field and 50% from 3-point range. He’s taking seven free throw attempts per game in that stretch. This is all with him being banged up from the preseason. He’s not healthy yet and he’s still playing this way.
“I’m out there at 20 years old,” Wiggins said about playing through injuries. “Have a young body. If it hurts today, it’ll be gone tomorrow.”
This team has taken to sticking together on the road. They’re 5-1 on the road this season. LaVine and Wiggins both talked after the game about the “us against everybody” mentality you get on the road. That’s something that can easily rattle a young team, but maybe the tenacity of Mitchell and the leadership of the veterans is guiding that. And if this team is embracing the challenge of the road, you have to think eventually that’s just the mentality they adopt everywhere.
Everything is a learning process with them. Everything is a teachable moment. And they’ll try to dunk on anybody.