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NBA

Old Man Goran Dragic Has The Juice For The World-Beating Miami Heat

Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic handles the ball and directs the offense during a game in the NBA's Orlando bubble.
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty

Goran Dragic led the Heat with 25 points in their Game 2 comeback win over the Boston Celtics Thursday night. He’s been the high man for the Heat in both games of the series, and leads the Heat in scoring through these playoffs at 22 points a night. Not bad for a greying 34-year-old guard with waning athleticism, who spent the regular season backing up an undrafted rookie. Dragic’s performance even got the Magic Johnson seal of, ah, factual acknowledgment.

It’s objectively cool that Jimmy Butler has not been doing the heavy lifting in Miami’s offense through two impressive wins to start the Eastern Conference Finals, and not just because Butler is so full of hot cheese that under only slightly different circumstances he would be on the menu at The Melting Pot, a trait that makes his successes difficult to enjoy. Heat president Pat Riley and head coach Erik Spoelstra have lock-step organizational and possession-to-possession theories of basketball that do not require or even particularly want one guy to be The Man on offense, and so Butler, who can certainly do the job when the situation calls for it, gets to be another cog carefully situated in a whirring machine.

By usage, a stat that measures the percentage of possessions a given player finishes while on the floor, Dragic is what passes for a focal point in Miami’s offense. A team that achieves perfectly even distribution would apportion 20 percent of possessions to every player who touches the court; Dragic, at 26.3 percent, is nowhere close to superstar level usage: his usage is the lowest of any player who leads his team among the four remaining in these playoffs, and is about two points lower than the second-most-used player on the Lakers (Anthony Davis), underscoring the emphasis the Heat place on distributing duties within their offense. But there’s still a situational hierarchy, and Dragic, as the team’s wiliest ball-handler and most versatile finisher, is the guy they most often use to force an opposing stiff into defending a high pick-and-roll, or to isolate against a mismatch late in the clock. The most dramatic shot of Miami’s late Game 2 surge came when Dragic just improvised a hero three against a mismatched Daniel Theis, who has more than held his own in switches throughout these playoffs.

It was one thing for Dragic to take a heavier share of possessions when he was turbocharging Miami’s bench during the regular season, but Dragic is now doing this as a starter, and in lineups with a superstar in Butler and a sublime, ascending matchup terror in Bam Adebayo, and with Duncan Robinson out there hunting threes on every possession. But this is where Miami’s system and Dragic’s experience set him apart: He supplanted Kendrick Nunn in the starting lineup at the start of the playoffs without any of the awkward business of figuring out where to fit into an otherwise established pecking order. The Heat have a theory of how Dragic works as an offensive player, and that theory does not change as the talent around him jumps a couple notches. He’s at his best driving and kicking, running pick-and-rolls, and taking handoffs at the elbows, and no other Heat player is so locked into a rigid style of play that they can’t accommodate his preference for being at the center of the action. Adebayo does the screening and handing off, Robinson keeps flying around screens, and Butler, to his enormous credit, shifts readily into secondary ball-handling mode.

Dragic, ostensibly on the downslope of his career, is worth making room for. He’s got a shot-type for every level of the defense, and even at a more deliberate pace than fans remember from his zippy athletic prime, he’s one of the best in the business at triggering a drive-and-kick sequence by straight-lining he way deep into the paint. What triggered Miami’s monstrous third-quarter surge to wipe out a 15-point Boston lead was Spoelstra scaling back some of the ball-movement in his offense and unleashing the Dragic-Adebayo two-man game, featuring Dragic sprinting around an elbow hand-off and then floating an alley-oop to his big man, or driving Theis and Kemba Walker to the baseline and then whipping a pass into the heart of the defense for a cathartic Adebayo dunk. With Boston counterpunching late, Dragic sank a pair of freebies to put the Heat ahead and then rainbowed home that absurd step-back to gain a two-shot cushion Miami would not relinquish.

Butler talked after the game about how the work Dragic did on the offensive end freed him to make the two stellar defensive plays down the stretch that helped sink the swooning Celtics, to be an energy guy who locks in primarily on that end, while Dragic does the work of setting the table and making sure everyone is in the right place and comfortable and confident in Miami’s offense. That’s a big job, and the rewards are doubled when taking it on relieves one of the league’s premier defenders from those responsibilities. Spoelstra highlighted the importance of Dragic’s ability to make something from nothing against as fundamentally solid a defense as Boston’s.

It’s just a very cool world we find ourselves in after two games of the Eastern Conference Finals: the Heat are the NBA team that is closest to a Finals berth, and their most important offensive player is the wily old veteran role-player, juicing them up with dynamic ball-handling when they get bogged down, and bailing them out with big shots when they start foundering. This is an unusual look for a team buzzsawing its way to a 10-1 playoff record, but it rules all the harder for its weirdness. Zone defense, a reclamation shooter, the unshackled all-court ambitions of a rim-running center, a no-nonsense Slovenian to stir the pot, and Jim Ass. Fuck it, man. Go Heat.