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.

Watch Tom Brady tell Charles Barkley to “take a suck of that” after he holes fairway shot

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It was the highlight of an entertaining — if not always pretty — afternoon of live golf, raising money for charity.

Tampa Bay Bay Buccanneers quarterback Tom Brady (it’s so weird to type that) was on his fourth shot on the par-5 7th hole at the Medalist Golf Club. Brady had a rough front nine to that point, and commentator Charles Barkley decided to up the trash talk (as if Barkley should talk about someone else’s golf game).

“How many shots do you want? Come on, I’m going to give you some shots man, I want some of you,” Barkley said.

“Don’t worry, it ain’t over yet,” Brady countered as he walked up to his fourth shot, 130 yards from the pin. “I think you just made him mad, Chuck,” host Brian Anderson said. “No, he can take a joke,” Barkley replied. Then this happened.

Brady earned that trash talk.

It wasn’t the only great exchange between the two; they had some fun on an earlier on a par 3 when Barkley bet Brady couldn’t get it on the green.

Increasing buzz teams well out of playoffs will not come to Orlando for games

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The Golden State Warriors have been public about it, they expect their season to be over. Golden State is far from alone, multiple teams well out of the playoff picture have questioned the expense and risk-to-reward ratio of coming back to play a handful of regular season games without fans in Orlando.

More and more, the buzz has been the NBA league office sees things the same way. I am not the only reporter hearing this: Steve Popper of Newsday wrote a column saying there was no reason to invite all 30 teams to the bubble city and the USA Today’s well-connected Jeff Zillgett added this:

This is where we throw in the caveat: There are no hard-and-fast plans from the NBA yet and every option is still being considered. One lesson Adam Silver took from David Stern was not to make a decision until you have to, and Silver is going to absorb more information in the coming weeks — such as from the recent GM survey — before making his call.

That said, the league seems to be coalescing around a general plan, which includes camps starting in mid-June and games in mid-July in Orlando.

For the bottom three to five teams in each conference, there is little motivation to head to Orlando for the bubble. It’s an expense to the owner with no gate revenue coming in, teams want to protect their NBA Draft Lottery status, and the Warriors don’t want to risk injury to Stephen Curry — or the Timberwolves to Karl-Anthony Towns, or the Hawks to Trae Young — for a handful of meaningless games.

The league is considering a play-in tournament for the final seed or seeds in each conference (there are a few format options on the table, it was part of the GM survey). That would bring the top 10 or 12 seeds from each conference to the bubble, depending upon the format, and they would play a handful of games to determine which teams are in the playoffs (and face the top seeds).

Either way, that would leave the three or five teams with the worst records in each conference home. Which is the smart thing to do, there’s no reason to add risk to the bubble for a handful of meaningless games.

Eight-year NBA veteran Jon Leuer announces retirement

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Jon Leuer is only age 31, but the big man has battled ankle and other injuries in recent seasons, playing in only 49 games over the past three seasons. Last July, the Pistons traded him to the Bucks in a salary dump, and Milwaukee quickly waived him. Leuer struggled to get healthy and did not catch on with another team.

Sunday he took to Instagram to announce his retirement.

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I love the game of basketball. I still want to play, but I know deep down it’s not the right decision for my health anymore. The past 3 years I’ve dealt with a number of injuries, including 2 that kept me out this whole season. It’s taken me a while to come to grips with this, but I’m truly at peace with my decision to officially retire. As disappointing as these injuries have been, I’m still thankful for every moment I spent playing the game. Basketball has been the most amazing journey of my life. It’s taken me places I only could’ve dreamed about as a kid. The relationships it brought me mean more than anything. I’ve been able to connect with people from all walks of life and forged lifelong bonds with many of them. What this game has brought me stretches way beyond basketball. I’m grateful for this incredible ride and everyone who helped me along the way. 🙏🏼🙌🏼✌🏼

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Leuer — a second-round pick out of Wisconsin for the Bucks in 2011 — averaged 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds a game for the Pistons in the 2016-17 season, and for the years at the peak of his career he was a quality rotational big man teams could trust, either off the bench or as a spot starter.

Over the course of his career he played for the Bucks, Cavaliers, Grizzlies, Suns, and Pistons. He earned more than $37 million in salary, most of it from a three-year contract the Pistons gave him in 2016. It was not long after his body started to betray him.

Leuer has been riding out the quarantine in Minnesota is wife Keegan (NFL coach Brian Billick’s daughter) and the couple is donating thousands of meals a week to the needy in that community.

 

New York Governor clears path for Knicks, Nets to open facilities for workouts

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As of today, 19 NBA teams have their practice facilities open for players to come in for individual workouts, but 11 have yet to open the doors. Some it’s the decision of the team, some it’s that the municipality or state had not allowed it.

The Knicks and Nets — in the heart of New York, the part of the nation hardest hit by COVID-19 — are two of those teams whose facilities are closed. However, on Sunday New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said they could open the door for practice.

“I believe that sports that can come back without having people in the stadium, without having people in the arena — do it! Do it!” Cuomo said at his press conference. “Work out the economics, if you can. We want you up. We want people to be able to watch sports. To the extent people are still staying home, it gives people something to do. It’s a return to normalcy. So we are working and encouraging all sports teams to start their training camps as soon as possible. And we’ll work with them to make sure that can happen.”

While the teams have not formally announced anything yet, it is likely at least the Nets will open soon for the players still in market to workout (the majority of players from the New York teams went home to other parts of the country). The Knicks, well out of the playoff picture, may be much slower to open their facilities back up.

When they happen, the workouts come with considerable restrictions: one player and one coach at each basket, the coach is wearing gloves and masks, the balls and gym equipment are sanitized, and much more.

One part of a potential plan for the NBA to return to play called for a couple of weeks of a training camp at the team facilities, followed by 14 days of a quarantined training camp in Orlando at the bubble site. Multiple teams reached out to the league about doing their entire training camp in Orlando to avoid having players quarantine twice (once when the player reports back to market, once when the team goes to the bubble city).