Goran Dragic leading feisty Heat’s playoff push

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BOSTON – Goran Dragic went to the back of the Heat’s plane Tuesday night and brooded.

The Bucks had just beaten Miami on Khris Middleton’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer, a play possible only because Zaza Pachulia beat Dragic to a loose ball:

“It was a 60-40 ball, really, for Pachulia, his advantage,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “And Goran really felt that, somehow, someway, he needed to come up with that ball.”

Dragic also wondered whether he should have conceded the ball to Pachulia and recovered to defend Middleton. Spoelstra assured Dragic he’d made the right play.

Besides, the coach didn’t want to dissuade Dragic from chasing loose balls.

“He’s hard-wired that way,” Spoelstra said. “That’s how we like it.”

Dragic, who forced a mid-season trade to the Heat, has used his skill and hustle to boost Miami in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff race.

After the deal, Dragic expected to join Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside in one of the East’s best starting lineups.

Instead, Bosh went down with season-ending blood clots, and Wade, Deng and Whiteside have each missed time due to injury. It has often fallen on Dragic to keep Miami charging – and he has delivered.

The Heat went 22-30 before the trade deadline and 11-8 since. Sitting in seventh place, they hold a 2.5-game cushion over the Pacers, Nets and Hornets for remaining in playoff position.

Dragic, averaging 17.0 points and 5.6 assists per game with Miami, is a key reason.

Unlike the other starting point guards traded during the season – Reggie Jackson (Thunder to Pistons), Rajon Rondo (Celtics to Mavericks), Michael Carter-Williams (76ers to Bucks) and Brandon Knight (Bucks to Suns) – Dragic has blended exceptionally well with his new team.

Dragic leads the group in after-trade PER:

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Win shares per 48 minutes:

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And box plus/minus:

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Not only that, he has improved in each category from before the trade to after more than the other players.

PER:

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Win shares per 48 minutes:

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Box plus/minus:

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These aren’t hollow numbers, either. Dragic’s teammates rave about how he helps them.

“He’s easy to play with from the standpoint of he’s going to attack,” Wade said. “He’s always on attack, so the defense – he’s going to get in the paint and finish, or he’s going to create a lot of traffic, and he’s going to be able to kick it out to you and you’ll have open space.”

So, why has Dragic surged more than his traded peers?

For one, he was the best player of the bunch last season and was unhappy in Phoenix this year. Sometimes, a change of environment does wonders.

Dragic also feels a sense of responsibility joining a team that reached four straight NBA Finals and won two of them. Though he lived his lifelong dream of leading a team with the Suns last season, he’s happy to defer to Wade at times now.

“That’s a team sacrifice,” Dragic said. “When they won a championship when LeBron was here and those guys, they have to make a sacrifice.”

It is a different tone from someone who noted Phoenix’s early struggles were due to three point guards trying to share one ball. It also echoes the culture Pat Riley is trying to maintain in Miami.

This is part of the reason Riley traded two first rounders for Dragic and will probably offer him a max contract this summer. The Heat’s prestige relies on continued winning, and Dragic helps the team win.

With Wade out against the Celtics on Wednesday, Dragic flipped a switch from focusing on sacrificing.

“My mentality before the game was that I need to carry this team,” Dragic said.

He did, scoring 22 points and dishing seven assists in a key win for playoff position. But that’s not the only way Dragic views carrying a team. He also threw his body all over the court:

That type of hustle is a big reason Dragic has impressed his new teammates.

“The one thing that I’m really surprised is he plays hard,” Deng said. “I knew he was fast, his skill, but he really plays hard.

“You’ve got to respect the guy when they play that hard.”

That effort also makes Dragic a good fit.

Wade has played on 12 Heat teams, and this year’s squad alone has seen multiple iterations. Since Dragic joined the squad, Wade has noticed Miami take a defined personality.

“This is one of my favorite units, because these guys are fighters,” Wade said. “We’re all fighters in here.”

Dragic fought through his disappointment about the Milwaukee loss and excelled in Boston the next night. In all, he played 77 minutes during the back-to-back.

“Right now, I feel terrible,” Dragic said, breaking into a smile.

Tim Hardaway Jr. calls fallen ref safe rather than defend shot (video)

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The Knicks went on a 28-0 run.

They earned the right to showboat late in their win over the Raptors last night.

Tim Hardaway Jr. called a ref, who slipped on the baseline, safe rather than contest Serge Ibaka‘s 3-pointer. Perfection!

Luc Mbah a Moute sets modern record at +57 in Rockets’ win over Nuggets

AP Foto/Eric Christian Smith
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Luc Mbah a Moute is a quietly good player.

He’s an effective and versatile defender. Offensively, he shoots 3-pointers well enough to score efficiently and spread the floor. Most of all, the 31-year-old just understands how to play and plays within himself. His teams tend to perform better when he’s on the floor.

That’s an understatement for Wednesday night.

In a 125-95 win, the Rockets outscored the Nuggets by a whopping 57 points in Mbah a Moute’s 26 minutes. That’s the best single-game plus-minus in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to the 2000-01 season. It tops Joe Smith’s +52 in a 2001 Timberwolves win over the Bulls, a 53-point game that also produced a +50 for Wally Szczerbiak and +48 for Terrell Brandon.

Mbah a Moute’s traditional stat line was impressive, though not overly so: 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. He played well, contributing to winning in all the small ways he often does, and the Rockets happened to play excellently around him.

Now, Mbah a Moute tops the leaderboard in single-game plus-minus since 2000-01:

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Did Russell Westbrook get mad at Steven Adams for not taking potential triple-double-clinching shot? (video)

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Russell Westbrook chases triple-doubles.

That hardly makes him unique. He’s just close enough to the feat more often than other players, so he chases them more often.

But he still chases them.

Late in the Thunder’s 108-91 win over the Warriors last night, Westbrook was heading toward his final line of 34 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. His teammates shot off his passes on three of Oklahoma City’s final four possessions before he took a seat (including one assist). The exception came when he passed to Steven Adams, who passed rather than shoot – clearly upsetting Westbrook.

Was Westbrook mad because he missed his chance at a triple-double? Maybe.

Was Westbrook mad because Adams passed as the shot clock neared expiration? Maybe.

It could be both!

Watch Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry on Golden State’s bench. They clearly found something funny.

Report: Teams are calling Clippers about DeAndre Jordan trades

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Injuries have ravaged the Clippers. They started the season 4-0 have been without three starters from opening night: Milos Teodosic (plantar fascia injury, he is still in a walking boot), Danilo Gallinari (strained left glute), and now point guard Patrick Beverley is out for the season after microfracture surgery on his knee.

All this has led to the Clippers losing nine in a row before beating the Hawks Friday night. All the weight of the offense has fallen on Blake Griffin‘s shoulders, and while he’s been good most of the game in the fourth quarter his numbers have plummeted, and the Clippers have stumbled.

It’s left the Clippers with a couple of hard questions.

Do they need a coaching change? There was a sense from sources around the league that Rivers is already on his way out — he was stripped of GM/president powers over the summer — and what kept him around was the couple of seasons at $10 million a year on his contract. That’s a lot of money for an owner to eat, even Steve Ballmer, but the time may be coming as a way to shake up the team.

The other, what to do with DeAndre Jordan? They could not work out a contract extension with him (Jordan was acting as his own agent), and one of the league’s top traditional centers is a free agent next summer, but new head basketball guy Lawrence Frank said they want Jordan to be a “Clipper for life.” Does Jordan want to be a Clipper for life? Do the Clippers really want him back, and if so at what price? Does a Clipper franchise trying to get approvals for a new arena in Inglewood want to rebuild now, because it does not help that process? If it’s time to move on and rebuild, do they need to trade him now?

Teams are calling about Jordan, reports Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post.

DeAndre Jordan, who can become a free agent after the season, has been coming up in trade conversations, with multiple teams talking potential trades. Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Lawrence Frank said last month that Jordan will be a “Clipper for life,” muddled matters, as does the limited number of teams who need a center and the size of Jordan’s contract ($22.6 million).

Jordan is an All-NBA center, a defensive force in the paint who sets a strong pick, rolls hard to the rim, can finish with the best of them, and is averaging 10.4 points (scoring and attempts are down without Chris Paul feeding him) and 13.4 rebounds a game. Jordan knows who he is and plays within himself.

It’s not hard to imagine how he could help teams such as Cleveland, Washington, Milwaukee, and a host of others. The question is what would teams be willing to give up to get him — they have to send back salary to match, but will not want to give up assets that help them win now. The Clippers will be looking for good young players and picks back in the package, which makes it hard for a team such as Cleveland to put together a package.

But before they discuss trade scenarios, the Clippers need to figure out what they want to do. Life has come at them fast this season and led to a lot of big-picture questions that Frank and Ballmer need to answer.