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Kawakami: Andrew Wiggins and the Warriors pass their grueling Game 6 test

Each game is a test. Every series is a new measurement of the Warriors’ cumulative will, dynastic timetable, athletic endurance and, yes, individual responsibility. Each moment is a crucible.

Left unspoken but floating around every play and press conference: They know that this will end at some point; sooner or later, they will fail one of these tests and that will be the end of this era.

But not yet.

Game 6 on Friday against the Grizzlies at Chase Center was the biggest test the Warriors have faced since everything got frozen for two years and then was brought back to life this season. This whole dramatic series was their biggest challenge since Toronto in the 2019 Finals. For the Warriors, it came down to Game 6 — because every single member of the organization was feeling quite queasy about the prospect of flying to Memphis for a potential Game 7 on Monday.

“It’s a long flight to Memphis, it really is,” Klay Thompson said with a sigh late Friday. “And we spent a lot of time at the Hyatt. As much as I enjoy playing on the road, it’s a well-earned day off tomorrow.

“And at our age, we take all the rest we can get. Although it wasn’t a Game 7, it definitely had that feeling like, ‘Let’s just win this one.’ We deserve to have a few days.”

If the Warriors had lost this game and then lost Game 7 … would they ever get to this place again? And would they be looking up at the Grizzlies from now on? That’s an existential question that the Warriors happily avoided, at least for now.

By closing out Memphis 110-96 on Friday with a surging fourth-quarter finish, the Warriors moved on to the Western Conference finals against either Phoenix or Dallas, and they didn’t mind showing us how good that felt for them. They didn’t know for sure that they could do this. They were pushed to the extreme by the younger, quicker Grizzlies. They got destroyed in Memphis in Game 5. They might’ve had some doubts. They sure didn’t want this to go to a Game 7. They might’ve felt a little old.

But they survived. And in the process, the Warriors also learned some very important additional things about their leaders, their new guys and their ability to keep grinding through the series. I’m not saying that the Warriors felt some of their own mortality, but I think that was a subtle part of this. And it was something that made finishing off this series even sweeter.

“Definitely special,” Stephen Curry said of the victory. “Never take it for granted and understand this is what it’s all about, and then for us to have another opportunity to get four more wins and play for a trophy, that’s special.”

Here are some of the specific things the Warriors know now that they didn’t know before Friday’s outcome:

Andrew Wiggins is a big-moment player   

The Warriors’ headliners love the guy. That much is not in question. But could they count on Wiggins at the most harrowing moments of a game they had to win? Remember, in many ways, the Warriors approached this like a do-or-die Game 7. Is that really the time even the most optimistic Warriors figures can believe in Wiggins, who disappointed so many in his Minnesota days?

Well, yes. Wiggins was simply incredible all game, especially in the fourth quarter, when he essentially took over. Wiggins subbed in for Jordan Poole at the 7:08 mark and immediately made a 3-point shot that gave the Warriors a 90-89 lead, then Wiggins had a steal and a dunk, probably the two biggest shots of the game. He also hounded Memphis point guard Tyus Jones into an awful shooting night and finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.

“I made a 3 at the five-minute mark or whatever,” Curry said, “it was the fourth quarter and I went to the bench and first person I saw was him and I yelled at (Wiggins), like he gave us life to start that fourth quarter. You know, made the big 3. I think he hit a tough at-the-shot-clock 2 that kept the momentum, got to steal the dunk, and then he got that three, right wing I think, and those are huge plays because it’s a one-, two-possession (game) either way.

“Still didn’t get a reaction out of him yet. Got one this series when he dunked on Brandon Clarke (in Game 2), but the rest of it, he’s just good, old Wigs making plays.”

Brown said that he knew Wiggins was tuned up for this game when Wiggins asked him at the morning shootaround if he could pick up Jones full-court.

“He said, ‘I’m locked in, I’ll do it for 48 minutes, you just tell me,’” Brown related.

Brown did not actually ask Wiggins to pick up Jones full court the whole game, but the mood was set in the biggest game of Wiggins’ career to this date. There will be bigger ones next round. And now the Warriors’ headliners know that he won’t shrink in the moment.

“I believed in him from the jump,” Klay said. “When he was with Minnesota, it was tough because to shoulder the load so much. Now with us, he can kind of be himself and play to his strengths and he was huge for us tonight.”

When I told Curry that if he wanted to see Wiggins smile, he should’ve watched him hug just about everybody in sight after the buzzer sounded.

“I missed it,” Curry said. “I have to hit up everybody for the videos, absolutely. I need those. Wigs smiling is always good for us.”

They can play big or small

A wry Warriors figure texted me after the game, reminding me that I wrote it was time to go with the small lineup. Nope! Instead, at the urging of Curry and Draymond, Brown and Steve Kerr decided to go big, starting Kevon Looney at center, since they believed the series changed shape after Memphis lost Ja Morant and went with a bigger lineup.

And all Looney did was grab 22 rebounds, leading an amazing 70-rebound effort by the Warriors.

That meant limiting Jordan Poole’s minutes, including most of the fourth quarter. But it was also a sign that the Warriors can go multiple ways. They won the pivotal Game 1 in Memphis mostly with Poole exploding alongside Curry and Klay. And they won Game 6 largely with Poole on the bench.

They’re going to need all of this flexibility to get through the next round and the round after that. I didn’t think Looney was very playable at all anymore in the playoffs, and I was wrong.

They also should get Otto Porter Jr., who missed Game 6 with a sore foot, back at some point next round. So a Warriors’ rotation that shrunk with the loss of Gary Payton II and the continued absence of Andre Iguodala looks a little bigger now.

The headliners still can gut out a crucial series

You heard it in their voices. You saw it in their bruised bodies and slow walks on and off the court. Curry, Klay and Draymond are feeling their ages. They’ve already seen Iguodala mostly sidelined. Playing the Grizzlies was at times like trying to keep up with a bullet train, which is part of why the Warriors seemed to pass the ball into the stands every other minute in this series.

So they savored this victory. They hadn’t been to the conference finals, of course, since 2019. They were wandering lost for two years while Klay recovered and Curry and Draymond suffered their own less-serious injuries. But they had what it took to dig this series out, if not by a whole lot.

“Feels like each time it gets tougher and tougher and tougher,” Draymond said.

Said Klay: “We are not singers; we are not actors. We can’t do this till our elder years. So while we are doing it, you just have to appreciate every single night because it goes really fast.”

This series went slowly, though. There were ejections and verbal jabs. Players were hurt. Players had great moments. Players had terrible moments. And the Warriors got through it.

They didn’t have to fly back to Memphis. They extended their season, and their relevance, for at least another round. Every game is a test. This one felt like about 10 SATs all at once.

(Photo: Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

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