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:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5oTJPBk_7A?rel=0&w=560&h=315%5D

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.

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

Indiana coach hot seat
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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

Pelicans big Zion Williamson
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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.

Rumor: Next NBA season could begin in March

Wizards guard Bradley Beal and 76ers center Joel Embiid
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The NBA could reportedly delay the start of next season – currently planned for Dec. 1 – if fan attendance becomes foreseeable.

How long would the league wait?

Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times:

one plan includes starting in March if the NBA feels they can get fans in the arena by then, as well as not lose personnel and viewership to the Summer Olympics.

I understand the temptation to delay. The coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult for NBA teams to turn a profit.

But this plan would invite all sorts of complications:

  • What if there’s no vaccine, cure or comparable solution by March? Then, the league would have wasted months getting practically no revenue – rather than reduced revenue – without reaching a more favorable point. (However, maybe owners could also reduce costs with a lockout.)
  • Starting the season in March would radically alter the NBA’s calendar. Shifting back to an October – or even December – start date would mean even more upheaval, potentially for several years.
  • The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled for July and August 2021. The Olympics have been a powerful tool for the NBA and its players expanding their global reach.

These are unique and trying circumstances. Coronavirus is a massive and confounding variable. Everything should be on the table.

Do I predict next season will begin in March? No. But apparently the possibility is being considered, which is something.