AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — There’s a reason Rick Carlisle called the Heat “one of the best ball movement drive and kicking teams that I’ve seen in 33 years in this league.”
Actually, there are two reasons — guards Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters. The Heat’s backcourt duo are the leaders of an offensive attack that relies on the drive-and-kick concept, as Miami leads the NBA with 35.2 drives to the basket per game this season.
Dragic is ranked third in the NBA with 12.1 drives per game and Waiters is ranked sixth with 11 drives per game. The only other teammates both in the top 10 in this category are Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
And it’s not just the amount of drives Dragic and Waiters are responsible for that makes Miami’s aggressive attack unique, it’s the amount of drives that end with passes that sets it apart. Among players with at least eight drives per game this season, Dragic is passing the ball on an NBA-high 46.8 percent of his drives and Waiters is right behind him ranked second with 41 percent of his drives resulting in passes.
But with Waiters expected to miss his fifth consecutive game with a sprained left ankle he suffered on March 17 (and no timetable for his return), the Heat will again be missing a key component of their drive-and-kick attack when they take on the Pistons on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. in Detroit. It’s a matchup with playoff implications, as Detroit is one of the teams Miami is competing with for a spot in the playoffs.
The Heat are 1-3 without Waiters during this stretch. This bump in the road comes in the middle of a 24-8 stretch that’s brought Miami from an 11-30 to a 35-38 record.
“Ain’t nothing you can do about it now,” Heat center Hassan Whiteside said. “We’re looking on to Detroit. We’ve got to focus on them … We can control our destiny. But we’ve got to get some wins down the stretch.”
Playing without Waiters has had a negative impact on the Heat’s 3-point shooting, which depends on Dragic and Waiters’ ability to get into the paint and draw multiple defenders to create open opportunities from long range. 88.7 percent of Miami’s made 3-pointers this season have come on assists, which is the second-highest percentage in the NBA behind just the Bucks.
How much has Waiters’ absence hurt Miami’s 3-point shooting? After shooting 39 percent from 3-point range in the month of February, the Heat have made 30.3 percent of those shots over the four games Waiters has missed.
That’s not a good sign considering the Heat have relied on elite 3-point shooting during this winning stretch. Catch-and-shoot players like Wayne Ellington and Luke Babbitt have played a big role in Miami’s improved shooting, but the amount of open shots they get has gone down with the team’s weakened drive-and-kick game.
But maybe the biggest impact stemming from Waiters’ injury has been felt by Dragic. Without Waiters to account for, opposing defenses are swarming Dragic to force the ball out of his hands and make it tough for him to find open shots.
Dragic is also battling a foot issue that’s so painful the Heat training staff is cutting a hole in the side of his sneaker to alleviate the pressure while he’s playing. Add all of this together, and Dragic is averaging 14.8 points on 33.8 percent shooting without Waiters during this 1-3 stretch.
Those inefficient numbers don’t represent the player Dragic has been for most of the season. The 30-year-old point guard is averaging 20 points on 47.5 percent shooting this year.
“It’s very different,” Dragic said of playing without Waiters. “We don’t have the second ball handler who can get inside the paint and create for others. Right now every time we play pick-and-roll, they kind of switch and blitz me. It’s hard. No rhythm for me right now. But I will try to continue to work hard and try to figure out those answers.”
Surprisingly, the Heat’s driving numbers have not been affected too much by Waiters’ injury. Miami is averaging 35.5 drives per game and passing on 39.4 percent of its drives — higher than its season averages in both categories — over the past four games.
James Johnson and Josh Richardson have helped to keep those numbers up, as they are averaging a little more than seven drives per game with Waiters out.
But it’s the amount of attention Waiters demands that’s been hard for the Heat to replace.
Still, Miami has been scoring plenty of points with Waiters sidelined. The Heat are scoring 102 points per game over the past four, while their defense is allowing 106.3 points per game during that time.
“I don’t think it was our offense that really got us or that’s inhibiting us from winning games,” Tyler Johnson said. “I think it’s getting stops down the stretch. We scored 108 points [Sunday against Boston]. That’s enough to get the job done. Obviously Dion brings something that’s kind of irreplaceable, as far as getting into the paint and doing all that. But we’ve proven we can win games with anybody in and anybody out of the lineup. So I don’t think that’s the reason we’re losing.”