Goran Dragic Is Feeling The Need For Speed

Can you imagine Al Pacino clutching the hood ornament of a cargo truck as it hurtles down a desert highway at high speed?

It’s tough to picture, isn’t it? Just as it isn’t easy seeing Harrison Ford lord steely-eyed over his nephew’s baptism as his enemies are systematically wiped out, the idea of Pacino donning a fedora and stepping into Raiders of the Lost Ark requires more than a little suspension of disbelief.

Tom Cruise as Hannibal Lecter? Meryl Streep as Ellen Ripley? Denzel Washington as The Dude? Christopher Walken as Neo? Sure, to a degree things can always work one way or another but no matter how talented or likeable or charismatic an actor may be, some roles will always be an odd fit.

When Goran Dragic begins the season slowly as the Miami HEAT play with big lineups at a crawling pace and then seemingly puts together monstrous statistical outings as soon as the team downsizes and turns on the burners, it doesn’t have to be a referendum on either him or the players around him. Teams have to consider every avenue to maximize the talents of an entire roster, and right now Miami has a role and style which suits Dragic perfectly.

“Everybody can see that I’m a different player when I play like that,” Dragic said.

The initial premise that Dragic hadn’t been playing well earlier may be false in itself. After a November worth forgetting following a turbulent summer – which we’ll excuse whether you agree or not – Dragic led all Miami perimeter players in true-shooting percentage (56.1%) and the team played at a Top-10 offensive rate while he was on the court, a team-high. But during that period, from December 1st to January 24th, the HEAT were still playing as slowly as anyone in the league and Dragic was barely using 20 percent of the team’s possessions.

He was conducting efficient offense and making the most out of his shots, but Dragic was still finding a way to fit into a style that ran counter-intuitive to his natural talents.

Things would begin to change following a practice before a January 25th game in Chicago – a practice Dragic wasn’t even fully healthy for as he recovered from a calf strain.

“I don’t know where it’ll fall, but ultimately you have to be able to play to the strengths of your personnel,” Spoelstra said. “Against some teams it’ll be slower, but we’ve wanted to play a faster pace, certainly off of misses and getting into offense.”

“A month ago, in Chicago, there was a slight adjustment,” he added.

Some pieces of that adjustment were chessboard moves made to fit small-ball lineups with either Luol Deng or Justise Winslow at the four spot – groups the team has excelled using all season but have recently taken on an even greater burden, including as a starting group, with the absence of Chris Bosh from the lineup.

“The great thing, that I give credit to the coaching staff for, is that they’ve found a way to open up the floor more,” Luol Deng said. “We’re putting somebody on the baseline at all time. We used to have one guy in the corner and one guy up high so you only had one side really open. Now, these guys, if they take away one side, the guy on the baseline just slides.”

The baseline runner has long been a staple of Erik Spoelstra’s half-court sets. Going back to the title teams, Shane Battier could usually be seen making a designed cut as action takes place on the ball in order to clear out and open up one side of the floor.

With Justise Winslow having yet to prove himself as a true corner spacer, Spoelstra has meshed the Battier concept with Chris Andersen’s old rim-runs from the deep baseline. So when you see Winsow or Deng sliding along the baseline, they’ve been put there to open things up for attackers like Dragic and Dwyane Wade.

And even when a body isn’t on the baseline, Miami’s smaller lineups are giving Dragic space to attack.

But the most important development that took place in Chicago was a simple emphasis on transition in the literal sense – simply getting the ball from defense to offense as quickly as possible.

Emphasis that, for Dragic, becomes empowerment.

Being a one-man fast-break is a valuable skill all on its own, but it’s something else entirely when you know your whole team is trying to run with you.

“Right before he got hurt in January, he was starting to play his best basketball,”” Spoelstra said. Where he was starting to feel comfortable and imposing himself more aggressively with this team. And now he understands that everyone wants him to. That’s a great feeling for his confidence.”

The ball isn’t always going to magnetize to Dragic’s hands after a tipped pass, and this is where Miami is making the game easier for all involved.

Before the recent focus on speed the HEAT were not only playing a slow pace but they were playing into the end of the shot clock with regularity. Sometimes that happens because you’re playing against a good defense or your execution isn’t very crisp, but Miami was selling itself short on the clock by not getting the ball across halfcourt quickly enough.

Off a turnover, miss or even made shot, the team had been too slow with its initial transition pass. When the outlet pass isn’t quick and confident, the point guard has to retreat to the ball, collect it, change directions and get going again.

It may only cost the team two seconds, but two seconds is life in the NBA. When you’re losing two seconds at the front end of every possession in a game, two seconds can spell your end.

Now, whether it’s Deng.

Or Wade.

Or Josh McRoberts

Dragic can be confident that the ball is going to find him in stride.

“When [Deng] gets the ball, or [Wade] or Justise, it’s not [happening] anymore when those three guys get the ball and I need to do that banana cut, come back to the ball and then run,” Dragic said. “Those two seconds mean a lot, especially if you want to play like that. It makes it easier.”

And more often than not, as you saw on Deng’s crucial outlet which cut the deficit to one in just four precious seconds at the end of the Indiana victory, Winslow is on the receiving end of those breaks.

“Every time when we defend well or force them to turn the ball over, Justise is breaking out,” Dragic said.

“[Dragic] is really just pushing the tempo and we’ve all been following that and running with him,” Winslow said.

Since Dragic returned from injury two games after that Chicago practice, the HEAT are playing at a pace of 99 possessions per game, a mark which would put them among the ten fastest teams in the league. The offensive efficiency has fluctuated around league-average with various rotation players in and out of the lineup and Miami may not want the possessions to climb too much higher as there can be diminishing returns with your defense, but the speed is working. And while there will be games where you’re playing more off makes and not forcing as many turnovers, the actual emphasis Spoelstra is placing on that pace each day appears more than sustainable.

That this has all had the side effect of Dragic’s usage rate climbing over 20 percent over the last ten games, and 25 percent over the last three (two with Wade out), is a nice bonus.

“The thing is, for Goran he’s a point guard,” Wade said. “As a point guard, sometimes you feel you have to defer. He may defer to me and then defer to Chris [Bosh]. Now, I’m the only one. So you can be ultra-aggressive. When I wasn’t playing he was even more aggressive. He’s an attacking guy but at times he’s a point guard.

“We love him in attack mode. We want him to be aggressive. Nobody here has ever told him to take his foot off the pedal.”

Before we go, Dragic’s recent play hasn’t only been predicated on pace of play and him playing aggressively in the absence of major players. There’s progress happening in the half-court.

In the six games and 92 minutes that Dragic and Hassan Whiteside have played together since the practice in Chicago, the HEAT are scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions – a top-five rate over the course of an entire season. In the 35 games and 838 minutes prior, that offensive rating was only 101.9 per 100.

Small sample-size theater and all, but when you see Dragic and Whiteside working the pick-and-roll as well as they have all season, both for Whiteside lobs…

And Dragic drives…

And doing it against a stout, paint-packing defense…well, perhaps something is brewing.

“I think I just understand, I can’t set up a pick-and-roll for Goran like I can for D-Wade,” Whiteside said. “D-Wade has a different pace to his game than Goran. Goran wants to just go, D-Wade takes his time, he looks, and then he goes.

“Me and Goran had a talk and he said he wants to try and get a lob a game.”

To which Whiteside later added:

“I just try to read the situation. If I see [Dragic] going, I try to get him downhill. He’s really good at finishing, especially going to his left hand. He keeps the bigs off balance because you have to guard two-on-one, as long as I get the [defender] to trail over the top.”

Where all this goes from here, with injuries and open roster spots making it difficult to get a full read on the team, nobody can be sure of. But all any team wants to see is consistent progress, and what we’ve been seeing has been happening long enough to believe in it.

Spoelstra has always tweaked and tinkered and adjusted throughout the course of the season in order to find the right style for his roster, and he’s landed on a combination that appears to be maximizing all available players.

He may not be wearing a fedora but, for now, Dragic has found a perfect role.


By: Couper Moorhead, NBA.com

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