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For a Night, Tyler Ulis Was the Biggest Little Man in the League

The Suns rookie put in the biggest performance (and biggest shot) of his young career against the Celtics

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

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: Tyler Ulis

Tyler Ulis wasn’t the best guard on the floor Sunday in Phoenix’s 109–106 win over Boston. He wasn’t even the best 5-foot-9 guard on the court. But in the best game of his young career, the rookie gave Suns fans a rare reason to celebrate.

Two days after scoring a career-high 14 points against Oklahoma City, the guard raised his own standard to 20 points on 12 shots to go with five assists. But those numbers don’t do justice to Ulis’s impact on the game. Despite his stature, the former Kentucky Wildcat was relentless on the defensive end, playing his man (often Isaiah Thomas) tight through the entire game, causing two jump balls, getting steals, and generally causing mayhem even without possession.

One of the aforementioned jump balls was against Thomas in a 5-foot-9 battle that made the internet ecstatic.

Ulis is well known for his tight handle, but on each of his five assists he looked like he had the ball on a string.

Perhaps most impressive about Ulis’s career night was how he managed to put up the points he did. Most of his output came on high-difficulty midrange jumpers; none of the guard’s points came via layups. Ulis weaved in and out of the Boston defense, making shots on stepbacks and while diving into contact. Few points came easy for Ulis, but he managed to succeed at a remarkable clip. All of this would have been more remarkable, perhaps, if Thomas hadn’t made this sort of physically mismatched manhandling commonplace this season. But Ulis isn’t built like Thomas or players like Nate Robinson, whose muscle helped them compensate for their lack of length. His frame, which is more like a scaled-down version of the average, lanky NBA player, makes his success at his height even more impressive.

Ulis’s outstanding afternoon became sublime in the final possession of the game. After Eric Bledsoe tied the game at 106 with four seconds to go on a slash to the rim, pressure from Marquese Chriss caused the Celtics to fumble their inbounds pass. The ball bounced to Ulis, who took one dribble and drained the game winner, which was also his only 3 of the game. Somehow, it also might’ve also been the easiest shot he made all game.

Runner-up: Paul George

Points are good whenever you can get them. Of course, the aesthetic value of scoring rises as a game goes on (Thomas has become one of this season’s most beloved players thanks to that concept), but if you don’t do well enough in the first three quarters, it’ll obviously bite you in the fourth.

Against the Hawks, Paul George had all of his 34 points in the game’s first three periods, shooting 75 percent from the field in that span and keeping the Pacers in the game as his teammates struggled. George was able to get whatever he wanted from all parts of the court. Atlanta had no answers for him at the rim, and from deep, the forward looked like he’d stolen Steph Curry’s talent.

But, in the fourth, George cooled off and Indiana, in turn, went ice cold. The Pacers scored only nine points on three made field goals in the first 10 minutes of the final quarter and allowed the Hawks to pull ahead by six with fewer than two minutes left to play.

Momentum was swinging Atlanta’s way, but the Hawks didn’t do enough during Indiana’s drought to put the game out of reach. The Pacers cut the Hawks’ lead to two with just over 30 seconds to play. From there, Indiana just needed a small push to get over the finish line, and they found it in the form of Glenn Robinson III.

Earlier in the quarter, Robinson had, potentially, the block of the year when showed off Flubber-level hops and shattered Tim Hardaway Jr.’s will to live.

With the clock winding down, George drove to the hoop and drew the attention of four Atlanta defenders, then kicked the ball out to C.J. Miles, who immediately found a wide-open Robinson in the corner. Robinson knocked down a 3 and put the Pacers ahead for good. George may not have scored in the clutch, but he kept his team close enough to eventually prevail, 97–96.

Honorable Mention: Bojan Bogdanovic

In the Wizards’ 115–114 win over Orlando, Bogdanovic hit eight 3s, including five in the fourth quarter, en route to a 27-point performance. His shooting down the stretch saved Washington from what looked like a likely bad loss; the Wizards trailed for much of the game and by as much as 16. The Croatian has been gunning since moving to Washington, making 20 of his 34 long bombs in his past six games.

I have to apologize to Bojan. I called his 3-point shooting “spotty” at the time of his trade to the Wizards, but he’s playing his best now that he’s getting open looks, rather than creating his own shot in the black hole that is Brooklyn. Scott Brooks is still toying with his rotation, but with the addition of Brandon Jennings, the Trey Burke–Jason Smith lineup that put the team in plus-minus hell seems to be extinct. And as long as Bogdanovic doesn’t have to play with four players worse than him, he’ll do (at least) just fine. Of course, Bogdanovic will be a restricted free agent after the season, and if he keeps playing at this level, the Wizards may not be able to match all offers knowing that they will likely need to give Otto Porter a max deal. But Bo Buckets is working out well for now, and as I tried to remind myself a few weeks ago, that, by itself, is pretty cool.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated Bojan Bogdanovic’s contract status after this season; he will be a restricted, and not an unrestricted, free agent. Also, Otto Porter’s contract ends after this season, not next season.