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Even if his actual on-court production at the NBA level has rarely suggested he really is one, Dion Waiters has always carried himself like a star.
It takes a special kind of confidence for a 21-year-old on a 24-win team to say he believes he can be the best shooting guard in the NBA, that he feels he’s “next up as far as shooting guards,” behind “Kobe [Bryant] and [Dwyane] Wade and those guys.” It’s precisely that sort of self-possession that leads you to dramatically clap your hands and call for LeBron James to come off the rock and let you cook, to look off a wide-open Kevin Love beyond the arc, and to hang onto the ball on the break instead of hitting a streaking Kevin Durant — earning some friendly (maybe?) eff-bombs in the process — all because you think you’re better equipped than two MVPs and a perennial All-Star to make magic happen.
Even after being shipped out of Cleveland and having to sign for pennies on the dollar in the cash-splashingest market in the history of NBA free agency after Oklahoma City rescinded his qualifying offer to make room for Russell Westbrook’s extension, the Philly-born Syracuse product has never seemed to waver in his belief that his name belongs on the marquee, in blindingly bright letters, alongside the game’s top attractions. And on Monday night in Miami, against the league-leading Golden State Warriors — for one night, at least — Waiters earned that top billing:
After a driving dunk by former Thunder teammate Kevin Durant to cap a 14-4 Warriors run and knot the game at 102 with 11.7 seconds left, Waiters got the ball with no timeouts left and a chance to be the hero. He crossed the half-court stripe and isolated against Klay Thompson, one of the game’s better on-ball perimeter defenders, letting the clock tick down as he held for the final shot. Waiters rocked Thompson to sleep with a slinky right-to-left crossover dribble between his legs, then pulled up from straight on, 25 feet out, and dropped a dagger on the Dubs.
Waiters drilled the pull-up 3 with 0.6 seconds remaining to send the American Airlines Arena crowd into hysterics. A missed Stephen Curry prayer later, and the Heat had earned a 105-102 win, handing the Warriors to just their seventh loss of the season … and as much as the fans in the stands appreciated the shot, though, it is difficult to imagine anyone enjoying the moment as much as Dion Waiters did.
If that “This is my city” exclamation sounded a little familiar to you, well, you’ve got good ears:
Au contraire, Mr. Amick:
The Heat, to their credit, instantly began having fun with Waiters’ decision to start cold-chillin’ in a B-boy stance:
… and so did the rest of Basketball Twitter:
For what it’s worth, while he’d certainly have preferred to win the game, even Golden State star Durant — who led the Warriors with 27 points on 12-for-23 shooting, but shot just 1-for-8 from 3-point land — seemed to get a (slightly vulgar) kick out of the Dubs’ comeuppance coming courtesy of Dion bleepin’ Waiters:
It’s all just too perfect.
And hell, why not enjoy a moment like this — hitting the game-winning 3 in front of your home crowd to beat the best team in the NBA, to run your injury-ravaged and seemingly circling-the-train team’s winning streak to four games, as you play your best ball of the year?
“Well, they’re the moments you want to live for, especially against a great team like that,” Waiters told Heat sideline reporter Jason Jackson after the game. “Coach [Erik Spoelstra] had all the belief in me, man — just constantly trusting me. You know, I’ve been putting in the work since I came off [the groin] injury [that sidelined him for 20 games], and I’m just — I’m in the zone right now. I’m feeling good.”
That much is clear. The game-winner put the cherry on top of another stellar game for the 25-year-old shooting guard, who for the second straight night tied a career-high with 33 points:
Waiters is 25-for-39 from the floor over his last two games. He scored 24 points after halftime, carrying Miami’s offense by going toe-to-toe with Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and the Warriors’ litany of superstar talents, and more than holding his own.
He’s getting to the rim and finishing there, bombing away from the corners when the ball swings his way, and stepping confidently into shots from above the break that, under normal circumstances, would be low-percentage looks for him … but then, these aren’t normal circumstances:
… and, as Waiters told Jackson after the game, this wasn’t a normal look.
“I knew it was good. I knew it was good,” Waiters said. “[Thompson] let me get to my shot. He let it get to my left hand — I thought he was going to force me right, but he let me get back. And you know, I’m not afraid of them type of moments. I truly believe in them type of moments.”
Good enough for Waiters — who, we remind you, has played all of 25 games as a member of the Heat, who’s averaging 14.6 points per game for a 15-30 team — to declare Miami his city.
“Just let [the fans] know — I’m here to stay, man,” said Waiters, who can exercise a $3 million player option this summer to skate on the second year of his deal and enter the unrestricted free-agent market. “I finally found a home. I feel good, man.”
Of course he does. He just got to live out the dream he’s been chasing not only since he entered the NBA, but ever since he first picked up a basketball.
“Those are the moments you live for,” Waiters said after the game. “I was thinking that was the moment I practiced as a kid.”
On Monday, practice made perfect, and when that happens, you get to strike a pose, talk your talk, and do whatever the heck you want. There’s a reason they call it hero ball, after all.
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