Miami Heat Finally Found the Key to Unleashing Goran Dragic

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 16, 2016

Dec 28, 2015; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra (left) talks with Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic (right) during the second half against the Brooklyn Nets at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI  It's an hour before tipoff, and Goran Dragic can't stop smiling.

He's not salivating over the night's matchup with the visiting Denver Nuggets or stumbling onto any funny blurbs in the pregame scouting report. Rather, as he sits in the comfy confines of the Miami Heat home locker room, he's struggling to contain his excitement over the team's new run-and-gun attack.

"My whole career I've played like this," the beaming point guard told Bleacher Report. "I was with the Suns my first three years, then I moved to Houston and played a similar style. It helps, because I'm more comfortable."

It seems like comfort should be a foreign feeling to the Heat with All-Star big man Chris Bosh battling blood clot concerns for the second time in as many seasons.

Dragic was the one who had to adjust earlier in the season. Miami's offensive pecking order ran through Wade and Bosh first. With a dominant defense added to the equation, the formula had its merits, even if it required a sacrifice from Dragic and a slower speed than he would've liked.

But the absence of Bosh—and his nightly supply of 19.1 points—forced the franchise to adapt on the fly. And the adjustments made by Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra played right into Dragic's wheelhouse.

"That Atlanta game [a 115-111 Heat win on Feb. 19], when [Dwyane] Wade didn't play either, we had to adjust and figure out who was going to score and how we were going to do that," Dragic recalled. "I think that was the moment we decided to run more."

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 19:   Goran Dragic #7 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket against the Atlanta Hawks on February 19, 2016 at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Neither the Heat nor their $85 million floor general have looked back since.

Miami owns the NBA's fourth-highest winning percentage since the All-Star break (71.4), thanks in no small part to its suddenly higher-octane attack.

After entering intermission ranked 29th in both pace (94.67 possessions per 48 minutes) and scoring (96.0 points per game), the Heat have erupted, pushing those rankings to 14th (99.86) and sixth (109.6), respectively.

Dragic might be even hotter.

For the first time since his arrival at last season's trade deadline from the Phoenix Suns, he looks like the player who garnered All-NBA third-team honors in 2013-14. As he's moved up the food chain, his teammates have raced alongside him.

The Heat are still a defense-first outfit, but the second there's a stop, they're hightailing it the other way with at least four capable initiators who can all push the pace.

"We love him in attack mode," Wade said. "We want him to be aggressive. ... We always want him going when he feels he can go. He is a great finisher. He scores the ball very well and we need that, especially without Chris."

Bosh is sidelined indefinitely, and the Heat have shied away from two-big lineups. Luol Deng slid over to the power forward position, giving Dragic more gazelles to run with in the open court.

Between those fast-break chances and Miami's newfound perimeter touch—sixth in three-point percentage since the break, 28th before it—this team has harnessed the speed, spacing and system needed to increase the brilliance of Dragic's green light.

That buyout addition Joe Johnson (58.6 percent long-range shooting with the Heat) and rapidly rising rookie Josh Richardson (62.9 since the All-Star break) seemingly can't miss a shot hasn't hurt. Neither has Johnson's ability to man the helm as an offensive creator.

As the pace and gravitational pull on defenders have both increased, Dragic's scoring chances have improved in quality and quantity.

"Even before, I could shoot, but I had to get everybody involved," he said. "It's just a different situation now. ... Everybody is loose. Everybody is running. We are moving the ball too, so everybody is dangerous for baskets."

It's the game Dragic was meant to play.

The 6'3", 190-pounder has long been an expert finisher around the basket. He boasts a career 67.1 shooting percentage inside of three feet, a higher mark than those posted by athletic aerial artists Wade (66.0), John Wall (62.3) and Russell Westbrook (57.6).

Dragic doesn't explode the same way—when asked what dunk he might have up his sleeve, he promised a "power layup"—but he's a master at navigating through tight spaces. He has the creativity and quickness to slip between narrow crevices in the half court, but his best work happens in transition, where he darts around backtracking defenders.

"Goran is so good in the open floor," Deng said. "Every time I see him driving, I'm running as fast as I can. He's just got to keep doing that. That's who he is."

"If you're rebounding and you're defending, then you can run," Dragic said. "In most of those situations, you'll have three-on-three or four-on-three. When that one guy is missing on the floor, that's huge."

It's huge for Dragic, whose post-All-Star-break scoring average would be the second-highest of his career. It's huge for the slashers and snipers around him, who gain more breathing room once the Dragon puts defenders on their heels.

And it's undoubtedly huge for the Heat, who have benefited most from their point guard's second-half surge.

Since the break, he's posted the league's fifth-highest plus/minus (plus-112), and they've scorched opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays.

"He's not your typical come-down-and-just-run-offense point guard. He's a scoring guard," Wade said. "Some of our best games [are] when he's been attacking and able to get in the paint and be aggressive. ... When he's doing that, we're just that much more dominant."

Dragic has been doing plenty of that lately, which is why the Heat look so dangerous entering the stretch run.

And why he can't keep that smile off his face.

All quotes obtained firsthand. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

Follow @ZachBuckleyNBA


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.