Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.
King of the Court: Dion Waiters
I want to tell you the (somewhat) true story of how a small child discovered one of earth’s most mysterious geographic wonders.
The clock showed 17.6 seconds remaining, with Heat point guard Goran Dragic at the free throw line. Miami, then a 14–30 team, led Golden State by one at home (confusing, yes, back to that in a moment). The broadcast zoomed in on a young fan in a Heat flat bill hat, a little dude who couldn’t have been older than 7. The South Beach crowd was a relentlessly loud horde of red, gold, and Pitbull; but he was silent, holding his hands to his mouth in prayer. Dragic hit the second of two free throws. But, seconds later, after a Warriors timeout, Kevin Durant took a Draymond Green kickout and wormed his way from the right corner to the rim for a slam and a tie game, 102–102.
It was then that Dragic, lingering around the 3-point line for an inbound, trusted Dion Waiters to handle the ball down the court. It was then, with two seconds left, guarded by one of the league’s best perimeter defenders in Klay Thompson, that Waiters pulled up for a 3 — and sank it. And it was then that the little guy in the crowd, who just saw the defeat of MVPs Steph Curry and KD, discovered Dion Waiters Island.
Yes, Golden State was on a back-to-back, and arriving in Miami the night before a game is known to make players a step slower (or induce flu-like symptoms, though thankfully everyone managed to dress on Monday). But for once, this loss wasn’t really about the Warriors. Miami has spent much of the year as the forgotten team of the East, the season’s official “Wait, Why Aren’t They Tanking?” squad. But though they have the second-worst record in their conference, the Heat entered Monday’s game on a bit of a hot streak, winning their past three games — the team’s longest streak since March of last year.
The wins began to mount almost as soon as coach Erik Spoelstra shuffled Miami’s starting backcourt. Injuries to Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow pushed Waiters into the starting lineup (and back into our hearts). Over their past three games, Dragic and Waiters have averaged 51 points combined. Against the Bucks last Saturday, they totaled 58, something two Miami guards hadn’t managed since ’09. Waiters tied a career high with 33 points against Milwaukee, and put up another 33 against the Warriors, becoming the first Heat player to score 30-plus points in two consecutive games since Dwyane Wade in 2015.
Ask the Cavaliers — beating Golden State takes a calculated game plan, health, dominance inside, and a once-in-a-lifetime player … usually. Hassan Whiteside was the dominant inside force, totaling 15 rebounds — including four of Miami’s 11 offensive rebounds — and James Johnson provided an extra spark of energy, finishing with nine points, two blocks, and multiple chest pounds. But Miami also beat the Warriors by keeping up in the third quarter, when Golden State usually puts teams away. The Warriors are the league’s best third-quarter team, having outscored their opponents by 126 points in their 11 games prior to Monday night. Against Miami, they lost the third frame, 31–25, spearheaded by Waiters’s 13 points in the quarter on 5-of-7 shooting.
For most of the game, Waiters remembered the sport’s concept of teammates, dishing his way to fluid ball movement and finishing with four assists. But Dion will Dion, especially in fourth-quarter hero ball time. It looked momentarily like ego would shoot the game away. He spent two consecutive possessions in the final minute driving to the rim and not finishing, then shooting off the dribble with plenty of shot clock left. He was being himself, the overconfident player who will never stop shooting his shot.
In a postgame interview following the 105–102 win, Waiters said he was just looking for a home, and that he’d found it. Maybe that kid in the flat bill heard what he said, and maybe his heart grew three sizes that day thinking Waiters meant Miami. But anyone who’s lived through the Dion Waiters Experience knows he has only one home, and it’s far off a coast somewhere, in isolation.
Runner-up: Russell Westbrook
SHOULD. BE. AN. ALL-STAR. STARTER.