Goran Dragic wasn’t expecting a hero’s homecoming on his return to the desert, or even polite applause from Suns fans. He figured the sounds would be derogatory and rude, like those he once heard in Europe.
“Probably it’s not going to be a nice welcome,” Dragic said before the Heat opened a six-game road trip in the city where Dragic spent the most significant portion of his NBA career. “It’s not the first time. Back in Europe, it was like that. When we played in Serbia, because my father is Serbian, it was a lot of whistling, trash-talk. But that’s part of the game. Probably I would do the same thing if I was a fan.”
It wasn’t nearly as bad as Dragic anticipated. He received lukewarm applause when his name was introduced.
Dragic, who scored 22 points to help the Heat defeat the Suns 103-95 on Friday night, didn’t leave Phoenix on pleasant terms 11 months ago.
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As he saw the team go into decline, he expressed his dissatisfaction openly.
“I don’t trust them anymore,” he said at the time.
Soon after, the Suns traded him to the Heat, who later signed Dragic to a five-year deal in July. True to Dragic’s concerns, the Suns have continued on a downward course.
Entering Friday’s contest against the Heat, they had gone 6-20 following a 7-5 start.
Dragic refused to throw an I-told-you-so barb in their direction.
“I’m not thinking about that,” Dragic said, deftly ducking the issue. “I’m only focused on the future. I’m part of the Miami Heat right now. I spent a nice four or five years here. I had awesome years.”
“No,” he said.
Any comments on the turmoil in Phoenix?
“It’s part of the business,” he said. “Every year it’s a different team. But I’ve still got some friends [with the Suns and in Phoenix] so, of course, they’re going through some tough times. But I know they’re going to figure it out.”
It was with the Suns where Dragic made his mark in the NBA, and where he enjoyed the highest moment of his career, the team’s surprising 2010 playoff run in which Phoenix reached the conference finals.
“I think I put my name on the map that year in the NBA,” Dragic said. “We just had great chemistry, and it was awesome.”
But it’s the past, and Dragic is happy where he is. He hung out with family members in Phoenix on Thursday after the Heat got to town, celebrating Serbian Orthodox Christmas.
“It’s quite different,” Dragic said of the differences, and his role, between Phoenix and Miami. “But I like it. We’re winning. This is a good organization. I’m really happy I’m a part of that. We have so many players that can score. Everybody needs to make some sacrifices, and I did that, and I’m feeling good.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra lauded Dragic, saying he’s growing and improving with time.
“What I love about Goran is his approach every single day,” Spoelstra said. “It’s try to get better, to try to be a better point guard for this team. There’s a lot of responsibilities, and I see big improvement. It’s slightly different here than what’s been asked of him in the past. Not better or worse. It’s just different, and he’s embraced every challenge.”
WHITESIDE FORGES ON
Even though his sore right knee continues to bother him, Heat center Hassan Whiteside said he’ll play through the pain.
“It’s still sore,” Whiteside said. “But I’m just going to play through. I know my team needs me, so I’m going to keep icing and staying on top of it.”
Whiteside said the injury causes him more trouble toward the start of games.
“It takes a while for it to get warmed up,” he said. “As the game goes, I feel better and better about it.”
Spoelstra said Whiteside isn’t the only Heat player who’s ailing.
“He’s not the only one going through that right now,” Spoelstra said. “With our team, everybody is dealing with something.”
Forward Josh McRoberts missed his 16th consecutive game Friday with a bruised right knee, but did do limited court work in the morning at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
“It’s better than nothing,” McRoberts told Fox Sports after the workout with assistants, the first time he has spoken with reporters since his last game Dec. 9 at Charlotte. “I’m out here getting a sweat in.
“Frustrated is how I feel missing this amount of time. But I’m doing all the work that I can do to …be back as soon as possible.”
When that return will happen remains a mystery. Even McRoberts said he doesn’t know.
McRoberts, who tore his meniscus in the same knee and missed the final 61 games of last season, initially bruised his knee Nov. 10 in a win over the Lakers. He played through the pain until he couldn’t anymore.
“Those things take time,” Spoelstra told Fox Sports of the injury. “You can’t fast-track it. The one thing we were really encouraged about, even though it’s its the same knee, is it had nothing to do with that. It had to do with that nasty hit he took on the floor. So it’s taken some time to get him back moving. But in the meantime he’s been able to really strengthen the leg, work some on conditioning, and now he’s getting slowly back into floor work.”