CLEVELAND – When Goran Dragic entered Sunday’s game late in the third quarter and with the Miami Heat desperately trying to hold off the Chicago Bulls, he was well rested.
The 31-year-old Dragic had played just 20 minutes, a pattern coach Erik Spoelstra has used for about the last two weeks.
The Heat’s point guard and most consistent player remained on the floor for the final 13:34 and scored 14 fourth-quarter points during the Heat’s 100-93 victory, their third straight win heading into Tuesday’s game at Cleveland.
Pulling Dragic about six minutes into each game – and resting him for 10 to 12 in the first half – triggers the rotation Spoelstra has settled upon. Tyler Johnson replaces Dragic and James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and Wayne Ellington all enter within the next four minutes.
“We know we have at least a good idea as to who we’re going to be going in for and around what time,” Tyler Johnson said. “I know for certain guys it makes a huge difference knowing who they’re going to be going in there with at certain moments.
“It definitely has settled the second group a little bit.”
Dragic’s minutes slowly were increasing and he had played five games of at least 36, which is about six more than what Spoelstra prefers. And it showed late in games as his production was declining in the second half.
So the two had a talk and Dragic suggested they get back to what worked well last year when the point guard would come out four to six minutes into the game, take a long break, and wind up with 12 to 14 first-half minutes.
“He plays so hard what we don’t want is for him to be out there and feel like he has to save it for anything or coast for a certain period of time,” Tyler Johnson said. “He’s able to play as hard as he can and get us off to a great start and then let the bench do what we do.”
The biggest issue when Dragic is out of game is who handles the ball. Spoelstra calls it a “group handle” because of the versatility of not only his reserves but also Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow.
“I’m getting more comfortable with that but we’re getting much more specific on which actions we run,” Spoelstra said. “We know what package of sets we’re trying to get to and each set sometimes will have a different ball handler. That’s okay.
“When we’ve been playing Dion with that second unit he’ll tend to handle a little bit more but the offense may run through (Olynyk) during that time so there’s different factors to it. I think that makes us more dynamic.”
Dragic admits “it feels like I’m more fresh, especially in the second half, the fourth quarter,” but he is not the only one benefiting. Ellington and James Johnson also have increased their production, especially late in games. Both played the entire fourth quarter of the first two games on this road trip, as has Olynyk.
Ellington, especially has hit a groove, scoring 40 points the last two games while taking nothing but threes and shooting 11-of-17. Johnson’s prints were all over the Bulls game, scoring 15 points (11 in the fourth quarter) with seven rebounds and six assists.
“It helps,” Dragic said about having a set rotation, “because you’re working with the guys (in practice) you know you are going to spend time with on the floor. We are building (chemistry).”