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.
Kings of the Court: Greg Monroe and Michael Beasley
The weight of expectation can do a lot to dampen achievement. A great athlete likely finds little delight in winning a small race or minor tournament. The second ring usually means less than the first. A trophy seems cheaper when room needs to be made in the trophy case. Of course, most reasonable fans did not expect any trophies to be awarded to the Milwaukee Bucks this season, but after Jabari Parker’s ACL tear last week, it seemed that even smaller goals would be drifting farther out of reach.
If one had to guess how the Bucks would fare in a game against a projected playoff team on a night when Giannis Antetokounmpo scored only eight points on 2-for-9 shooting from the field, most would assume Milwaukee lost, probably by a lot. But, unhindered by expectation, the Bucks cruised on Monday to a 102–89 victory against the Detroit Pistons, who were likely still reveling in their win over the Toronto Raptors the night before. With the win, Milwaukee has closed the gap in the battle for the East’s eighth seed to one game.
Milwaukee was bolstered primarily by role players Greg Monroe and Michael Beasley, whose workmanlike performances to this point in the season have usually been overshadowed by the flash of the team’s young stars.
If Monroe was ever a routine bench player at any point during his basketball career prior to this season, that must have been before cameras were watching him. The forward was a heralded prospect coming out of high school, the focal point of the Georgetown offense during his two years in college, and a cornerstone in Detroit during his five years with the Pistons. Monroe started last season with the Bucks as well, but has played this season entirely in relief of Milwaukee’s starting center du jour (John Henson, Miles Plumlee, and Thon Maker have all seen time in the starting lineup, but Monroe averages more minutes than any of them). Despite a decrease in minutes and shots, Monroe’s efficiency hasn’t declined. His 52.2 effective field goal percentage is identical to his mark from last season, and it’s the best figure of his career since his rookie year. On most nights, Milwaukee doesn’t rely on Monroe for the bulk of its scoring, but on Monday night with Parker out and Antetokounmpo struggling, the former Hoya showed that he can still shoulder a weighty load, scoring 25 points on 12-of-15 shooting and grabbing 13 boards against Andre Drummond and Detroit’s tough frontcourt.
For a long time, it looked as if Beasley’s days as a starter were over, as well. The 2008 draft’s second pick crashed out of the NBA in 2015, but after a stint in China, where he scored over 30 points a game in 40 games with the Shandong Golden Stars, he returned as a reliable contributor for Houston, which traded him to Milwaukee during the offseason. This year has seen Beasley at his most efficient, bar none: His 54.2 eFG% is more than six points higher than his career average. His 23-point night was effortless. The forward looked to be his vintage self on a 10-for-13 shooting night, with all of his baskets coming around the rim and in the midrange. Beasley has scored in double digits in four of his past eight games.
With the postseason still in reach, Milwaukee can’t afford for this game to be an outlier for Monroe and Beasley. Even when Giannis is playing like his usual freakish self, the Bucks will need contributors to fill the void left by Parker if they intend to play themselves into the playoff picture.
Runner-up: Kawhi Leonard
Fundamentals aren’t boring, and neither is Kawhi Leonard.
In San Antonio’s tight 110–106 win over Indiana on Monday, Leonard notched 32 points, which has quietly become a regularity for the NBA’s best defensive player. He has now scored 30 points or more on 19 different occasions this season and has overtaken Kevin Durant as the league’s eighth-leading scorer.
Scoring is flashy, though, and since Leonard has always embodied a more robust style of play, here’s the most Kawhi Leonard highlight of the night: After falling and throwing an errant pass while driving to the hoop with the game still close and little more than 30 seconds to play, in a situation where most players would spend a moment in disgust, Leonard instead sprang up, ran downcourt, and poked the ball away from Paul George, giving the Spurs possession and essentially ending the game.
Defense is cool, kids.