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.

Adrian Wojnarowski: Knicks firing David Fizdale ‘inevitable’

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Knicks president Steve Mills is reportedly laying the groundwork to fire coach David Fizdale.

One step: Mills and general manager Scott Perry addressing the media after Sunday’s loss to the Cavaliers while Fizdale was still in the locker room. Mills and Perry stressed that the team wasn’t meeting expectations, seemingly a veiled shot at the coach.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

The dismissal of David Fizdale is inevitable, and there was, I think, a bond broken between management and their head coach with how they handled things after that loss Sunday night.

Coaches are hired to be fired, but this sounds far more urgent than that.

As long as Fizdale has his job, he has a chance to save it. If the Knicks start playing better, they could keep him.

But that seems unlikely with this underwhelming roster.

Which is why New York is reportedly also considering a front-office change.

Austin Rivers calls for Doc Rivers to get technical foul (video)

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When Doc Rivers coached Austin Rivers on the Clippers, accusations of favoritism ran rampant. Playing with the Rockets against the Clippers tonight, Austin showed where his loyalties lie.

Not with his father.

The Clippers were letting the game (an eventual 102-93 Houston win) get away from them when Doc argued a call. Austin stood nearby and urged the referee to call a technical foul. The official eventually obliged and ejected Doc.

That’s when Austin really hammed it up – waving off Doc then making the call-me gesture. The disrespect!

Ja Morant hits game-winner in Grizzlies-Hornets (video)

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Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant has had a game-saving block and game-winning assist.

Now, he has the glory of a game-winning shot.

Morant sealed the Memphis’ 119-117 win over the Hornets with a driving scoop in the final second tonight. He led Memphis with 23 points and 11 assists.

P.J. Tucker misses open fastbreak layup, trips on stanchion (video)

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I want to give P.J. Tucker a break. He’s the Rockets’ most (only?) reliable defender. He has such a heavy burden covering for James Harden, Russell Westbrook and just generally undersized lineups.

But this missed layup was so bad. And that stumble over the stanchion really seals the goof.