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: Tim Hardaway Jr.
The Atlanta Falcons need to sign Hardaway, and they need to sign him now. He hasn’t played football since his freshman year of high school, so there’s no reason for the Falcons to believe he can help them beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl in Houston. But I had no reason to believe Hardaway could do what he did Thursday night for the Atlanta Hawks in the fourth quarter, also in Houston.
Thursday night was the first time Atlanta visited Houston since last April, during Dwight Howard’s rocky Rockets tenure, and the first 40 minutes went perfectly for a Houston team trying to show how well it’s doing without its ex. James Harden scored 18 points in the third, and Clint Capela added a career-high 22 points. Capela looked like Howard at his offensive best, filling what should have been Howard’s role — the difference being Capela doesn’t obviously hate Harden’s guts. With 8:27 left, a 3 by Eric Gordon gave the Rockets a 20-point lead.
But the fourth quarter belonged to Hardaway, who individually outscored the Rockets 23–22 as the Hawks stormed back to win 113–108. Hardaway went 8-for-10 in the final period with three 3s and this dunk over a one-step-too-slow Capela, who now looked like Howard at his worst.
Last Sunday, the Hawks played four overtimes against the Knicks, with Hardaway playing 57:52. In almost an hour of basketball, he scored 19 points on 20 shots, going 0-for-9 from 3. In the fourth quarter Thursday, he scored 23 in under nine minutes on 10 shots.
Hardaway’s fourth quarter alone would be tied for the eighth-best performance of his four-year career. His 33 points on the game are a career high unless we count his 36-point performance at the 2014 Rising Stars Challenge, and counting stats from the Rising Stars Challenge is like listing your video game accomplishments on your résumé.
But we should talk about the 2014 Rising Stars Challenge. A few months after a draft headlined by no. 1 pick Anthony Bennett, the All-Star weekend sideshow meant to feature the league’s young talent didn’t have much young talent to choose from. The result was a game dominated by Hardaway and Dion Waiters. They (kind of) guarded each other and refused to pass or shoot 2s. At one point they drilled back-to-back-to-back-to-back 3s over each other.
Look at the bushy-bearded spectator in the front row, having the time of his life.
Until this past month, Hardaway’s and Waiters’ performances seemed like evidence we should stop calling the game the Rising Stars Challenge. Waiters spent the next few years irritating teammates with his insatiable desire to shoot, and, on the Knicks, Hardaway’s impulsiveness outweighed his talents: He was so convinced that he was the right person to take the ball on a fast break that he’d commit an offensive foul when he could’ve passed to someone with a better lane. He got traded straight-up for Jerian Grant, another child of a 1990s NBA player, who later became a chip in the Knicks’ trade for Derrick Rose. Therefore, Hardaway got traded for somebody who was part of a trade for a very expensive, past-his-prime player.
But three years later, Waiters and Hardaway have seen their stars rise. Waiters has suddenly become a brilliant, buzzer-beating hero for the Heat, the main reason one of the least-talented rosters in the NBA is on a nine-game win streak. And Hardaway just made the case that he’s the best player in the NBA whose name starts with “H-A-R-D” — at least for one night.
The Rising Stars Challenge may have seemed like a sideshow, but it was not. It was a preview of what certain NBA players can do when they have every reason to just shoot their shots. The crowd had a blast during that event, but nobody treated it like something that would ever have relevance in an NBA game, not even the tall dude with an incredibly bushy beard in the front row. Maybe he should’ve paid closer attention.
Runner-up: Blake Griffin
Hypothetically, Griffin’s job Thursday night was to beat the Warriors. But that wasn’t going to happen; the Clippers don’t beat the Warriors even when they have Chris Paul. Without him they’re an above-average team that still gets billed like a contender, and they lost 133–120 to Golden State.
But Griffin still had a job to do, and boy did he do it:
Let’s look at Kevon Looney, who is now no longer allowed to collect a championship ring should the Warriors win this season:
Most teams can’t beat the Warriors, and Kevin Durant already had the idea to join them. But Griffin can dunk on them, and that’s a hell of a battle to win if the war’s not gonna go his way.