MIAMI — Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters spend a lot of time together in the locker room.
They have to because their lockers are right next to each other. But they have also come to enjoy each other’s company in their first season as teammates.
“Our lockers are right next to each other,” Dragic said. “We’re in the same neighborhood. We talk all the time.”
And their relationship on the court is starting to blossom, too. The Heat’s starting backcourt of Dragic and Waiters is averaging 48.1 points on 51.7 percent shooting from the field and 45.8 percent shooting from 3-point range to go with 9.6 assists during the Heat’s current seven-game winning streak.
It’s taken a while to get to this point since injuries delayed the chemistry process.
Dragic has missed eight games this season due to a sprained left ankle, a strained left elbow and a sore back. Waiters missed 20 games with a torn muscle in his groin area.
“More time together,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of why Dragic and Waiters have played so well together recently. “The more court time they have together, practice time, shootarounds, film sessions, you just can’t take that for granted. And they missed a lot of that time when Dion was out for six weeks. You were already starting to see the progress in November, but it was short circuited because of the injuries. So both of them are getting into a comfort zone right now.”
Over the Heat’s first 48 games of the season, Dragic and Waiters have played together in just 23 of them because of injuries. They have now made 20 starts together with Miami holding an 11-9 record in those games.
“When I was healthy, G got hurt. When G got healthy, I got hurt,” Waiters said. “We really couldn’t build that chemistry how we got now. We’re similar guys. We like to attack, get in the paint and put pressure on the defense. When guys collapse, we know we got the sprays and we got open guys. It’s tough. You just got to pick your poison. If G got it going, I get the hell out of his way.”
And if Dragic looks more comfortable playing next to Waiters than he did with Dwyane Wade, that’s because he is. Dragic was clearly the second option to Wade, as he attempted 380 fewer shots than Wade when the two were on court at the same time in their 1.5 regular seasons together in Miami.
With Waiters, Dragic feels comfortable taking the lead role when he needs to. Over the seven-game winning streak, they’ve actually taken the same exact amount of shots with 120 field goal attempts each.
“Dion has a different game than D-Wade,” Dragic said. “He has a similar game [to me]. He likes to get to the paint. He likes to attack. When you have one guy on the left side and another guy on the right side, and if they take the first option away you have the second option. His game makes it easier for me. Just a better fit.”
Dragic leads the NBA with 13.4 drives to the basket per game and Waiters ranks ninth with 10.6 drives per game this season. They are the only pair of teammates ranked in the top 10 in this category.
“Sometimes they start blitzing us,” Dragic said of opponents trying to keep them out of the paint. “That tells you everything — how much they want us to pass the ball and not get into the paint and the sweet spot that we usually get to. It is what it is. It’s hard to blitz on one side when you pass it to the other side.”
The Heat’s starting backcourt is even working together well off the court. Waiters credits his improved finishing touch around the basket to some advice Dragic gave him a few weeks ago.
Dragic, who is a career 66.7 percent shooter from within three feet of the rim, encouraged Waiters to start using a trick that’s led him to become a more efficient player around the basket — take an extra dribble and use your shoulder when you get into the paint to create space.
Waiters calls it “the cold shoulder.” And it’s working, as Waiters has made 61.5 percent of his shots on drives during the seven-game winning streak compared to the 36.4 percent rate he was making them at this season before the string of wins.
“He gives a lot of guys, especially the big men, that cold shoulder,” Waiters said of Dragic. “I call it the cold shoulder. I think it’s lethal, man. I don’t think bigs are expecting that pop once they go down there. I think after they feel that, their chest feels a little sore and you keep going down there. That’s what he do, man. He does a hell of a job.”
As their relationship continues to grow on and off the court, Dragic is realizing that Waiters is not the moody and selfish player his reputation says he is.
“Everybody was saying that he has trouble or something,” Dragic said. “I’m here with him every day. He’s kind of quiet, has that look that you don’t want to talk to him. But I always tease him. I don’t know. I always say something to him and he says something back. We’ve developed that chemistry.”
They also share one very important trait — the need to win.
“Everybody understands you just need some time to get to know people. He’s not a bad teammate,” Dragic said of Waiters. “He’s the opposite. He wants to win and I think that’s the most important thing.”