The Miami Heat have had a few pretty good players in their history. You remember the names – Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Chris Bosh and one who could not stay away, Dwyane Wade.
Goran Dragic never will be at the elite level of those six having taken 10 years to reach his first All-Star game. But Dragic – the Slovenian who does match their cache in one area, reverence and popularity in his native country – means as much to this version of the Heat as they did during their heyday.
Remember though, Hardaway and Mourning had each other. Wade and Shaq were a dynamic duo. James, Wade and Bosh were the Big Three for four years. Then Wade and Bosh leaned on each other for a couple more.
But Dragic, the last two years, it just seems many nights he’s been on an island. And though not as skilled as any of the six, he has been forced to carry the Heat for many of those nights.
None more so than the last three. There was something different about Dragic, especially Friday when he was the brightest star in a city that has trouble fitting all of its stars in one arena.
Dragic’s 30 points were capped by a floater in the lane that gave the Heat a 92-91 victory, snapping a Heat nine-game road losing streak. Dragic willed the Heat to victory, keeping them in the game with 22 first half points and then scoring the biggest basket of the game.
“Goran was simply desperate on this road trip,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s playing with an urgency that we need right now to get to the finish line. All these games are so important. That’s his form of leadership, letting guys know that he’s playing at his highest level of play.”
Dragic is not among the elite level point guards in the NBA. Those who do not see him every night might argue that he isn’t among the top 10 considering it’s the deepest position in the league. What he has become is the Heat’s best player since Wade left and Bosh’s career was sidetracked in the summer of 2016. And he remains that with Wade returning at the age of 36.
And what we are seeing now is a more aggressive, more determined Dragic. Sure, he has always been a player who has no fear of attacking the rim. But it seems now, especially this week, he is doing that, and more, with more of a purpose.
Dragic was relentless on this trip. Unfortunately, his help only came in spurts … from Tyler Johnson in the loss at Portland, from Wayne Ellington and James Johnson in the overtime loss at Sacramento and from Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk in Friday’s victory in Los Angeles. He averaged 28.7 points in the three games while shooting 55.4 percent.
And he capped off his fifth 30-point effort of the season – of the nine total for the Heat – with his first game-winner.
Of course, these three games were played without Wade, who is nursing a mild hamstring strain. Dragic has great respect for the future Hall of Famer and like a few others, appears to defer when Wade is on the court. This is something Wade has acknowledged – not about Dragic specifically but about all his teammates – and is doing all he can to assure his teammates do not change their habits when he is on the floor.
“We need Dwyane and Goran playing at an extremely high level, both of them, at the same time,” Spoelstra said. “Before Dwyane got hurt, I loved where our team was offensively. We had great balance and I’m sure it was probably on opponents’ minds. The more weapons you have, the better chance you have.
Even Friday, after Dragic scored 22 of the Heat’s 50 first half points and assumed Wade’s role as the closer, he would not accept all the credit, saying with Wade and Hassan Whiteside (hip) out and Josh Richardson (joining) them on the sidelines Wednesday in Sacramento, “you need to take over a little bit.”
What Dragic did this week was take over more than a little bit.
“The last three games I have (a lot of) confidence but sometimes you know when D-Wade is out, Hassan and J-Rich I need to be aggressive, I need to make things happen,” Dragic said. “I’m just doing my job, nothing special.”
What Dragic must do is make sure he continues to play with the same purpose when Wade returns, which could be as early as Monday’s home game against Denver.
Oh, and speaking of special, that final Heat offensive possession. …
Dragic got the ball from Adebayo, who rebounded a Julius Randle miss, and raced down the left side.
“I kind of pushed the tempo a little bit,” he said. “Basically, they didn’t cover the elbow so it was a little bit more space. The only thing I was afraid (of) that Spo was going to call a time out.”
Spoelstra surveys the play before making the decision on a time out in those situations. He wisely allowed the flow to continue when he saw Dragic on the run.
Dragic made his move, got free and converted the 10-footer.
“That’s what leaders do,” James Johnson said. “He’s a captain and he’s an All-Star. Sometimes you got to make All-Star plays for your team and he came through. Not surprising to us. That’s what he’s been doing all year and he wanted to continue doing that.”