Before Kyle Lowry became a two-time All-Star with the Toronto Raptors and Goran Dragic signed an $85 million deal to remain the Heat’s point guard last summer, they were teammates for two seasons in Houston — including a talented Rockets team that won 43 games and missed the playoffs in 2012.
Lowry was the starter and Dragic was his backup — until Lowry tweaked his groin and fell ill with a bacterial infection that kept him out a month. When Lowry returned for the final two weeks of the season, Dragic remained the starter.
“They went pretty hard in practice,” Raptors forward Demarre Carroll — a reserve forward on that Rockets team — told the Toronto Star on Monday. “You could tell there was tension but at the same time they had to play with each other. … I don’t know if Goran is still thinking about it, but I know Kyle is still thinking about it probably.”
Whatever tension there might have been between Dragic and Lowry four years ago has dissipated – at least for now.
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For as much as some on the outside might want to dredge up their competitive past as teammates to spice up the head-to-head match-up in this Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series, Lowry and Dragic said Tuesday they starting this series as old friends.
After all, in the end, the Rockets didn’t want either of them after that 2012 season. Houston traded Lowry to Toronto and Dragic ended up signing a four-year, $34 million deal with the Suns. Since then, they’ve been on their own paths to stardom — and behind the scenes they’ve quietly cheered for one another.
“Me and Goran’s relationship is fine. We’re friends,” Lowry said Tuesday after morning shoot around at Air Canada Center. “His family and my family know each other. I speak to his kids. There’s nothing but love and admiration for each other from my end.”
Dragic said what Lowry did to comfort him in Houston after he was traded by Phoenix at the deadline in 2011 always meant a lot to him.
“It was a tough, tough stage for me when I came from Phoenix to Houston, and he was there for me,” Dragic said. “We played the same position, but I never felt like he looked at me as competition. I got that feeling from him that we were teammates and we were a team. I was happy for him when he exploded last year and two years ago. We even texted and I sent him [direct] messages on Twitter.”
Dragic said Lowry helped him learn the importance of being more vocal as a point guard.
“He’s such a better player, different player,” Lowry said of Dragic. “We both were younger and trying to figure it out [when we were teammates]. Now he’s playing at a different level right. Two years ago he was [Third Team] All-NBA. This year he’s playing fantastic. Playoffs, the last couple games he’s really been going downhill and making shots. He’s just a different player. We’re such better players than we both were. So it’s a different challenge for me.”
Said Dragic: “He’s such a strong and feisty guy. He has never backed off. That’s what I’ve always liked about him.”
The Heat might not have ended up with Dragic had Lowry not opted to stay in Toronto two years ago. Part of Pat Riley’s plan to fortify the Heat after it lost to the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals was finding a fourth weapon to add to the Big 3.
Lowry was one of those targets at the forefront. Although there was mutual interest, Lowry opted to stay in Toronto, signing a four-year, $48 million deal. Plan B in the Heat’s search for a point guard — after LeBron James returned to Cleveland — turned out to be acquiring Dragic at last year’s trade deadline.
Now, the goal for Dragic and Lowry is the same: beat each other and advance to face James — unless the Atlanta Hawks pull off an upset.
“I like him a lot,” Dragic said of Lowry. “But when this game comes, it’s no friends — you need to do your job. Everybody is going to battle. We’ll see what’s going to happen in the end.”