The last couple weeks for Goran Dragic have been about soul searching.
Sunday, it was finally about basketball again. The good news: the hunger to win is still very much there.
“When I came back today I was eager to shoot the ball, get on the floor with the guys,” the Heat’s point guard said Sunday, his first full contact practice with the team after coach Erik Spoelstra rested him for the final four preseason games to give Dragic a mental break after he led his native Slovenia on an emotionally draining run to the gold medal at the EuroBasket tournament in September.
“I felt good,” Dragic continued. “I thought I would be tired or out of breath. But I didn’t. I ran, did closeouts, I did good.”
For Dragic, who last played in a game Oct. 5 at Brooklyn, the break, he admits, was much needed.
Just before he started a passionate six-week run with the national team, his grandfather passed away. Dragic attended the funeral, and then went right back to basketball, leaving his wife and two children behind to go for gold.
Early Friday morning, Dragic welcomed his wife, kids and parents back to South Florida from Slovenia and it was an emotional reunion.
“I didn’t see them for a month and a half. I mean I was home for a few days, but that doesn’t count,” he said. “At 7 in the morning [Friday] it was like ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ Finally there was food on the table. It was a nice weekend.”
Although Spoelstra said Dragic practiced ‘intermittently’ with his teammates since the start of camp on Sept. 26, the Heat’s coach never wanted his point guard to just dive right back into basketball. Having experienced his emotional runs in leading the Heat to four straight Finals and two championships, Spoelstra knew what Dragic went through this summer would leave him emotionally drained.
Dragic said he felt ‘hungry’ on the court Sunday.
Asked if he felt mentally recovered, Dragic, 31, didn’t really know how to answer.
“If I’m honest I don’t know how to [explain it],” he said. “I experienced this for the first time in my career. But I’ve had a lot of rest, a lot of talking, just trying to see what’s going on and pour out your emotions. I feel like that you can only take a step forward. I don’t know how to describe it. But when you’re on the top and you finally achieve [something big] you kind of don’t know what to do anymore.”
Some players reach the top and lose the hunger to play.
Was that what this was for Dragic?
“I mean, no,” he said. “That wasn’t it for me. I still want to play. I still enjoy basketball. It’s not like that. Just a lot of stuff happened in a small amount of time – pressure, emotions, winning. The last two months I was up and down.”
Ultimately, Spoelstra said Sunday he thinks Dragic got the break he needed.
“[Did] we have a perfect plan for this? I don’t know. We’ll find out,” Spoelstra said. “We definitely did not want him coming in physically and mentally fried. So we wanted to have him go in training camp with a couple light days, but also a couple heavy days. He has trained hard in between that, just doing his own individual conditioning. He was back at practice full scale, full contact [Sunday] and he looked fresh. Hopefully we’re hitting the goals that we wanted.”
After going 3-3 this preseason, the Heat opens the regular season Wednesday in Orlando, aiming to look more like the team that finished last season 30-11 than the one that started 11-30.
With 11 players back from last year’s team that finished 30-11, Dragic believes the Heat is ready to get back in the playoffs.
“I feel like we know what we have to do to not be in the same position as last year or even get too loose,” he said. “Eleven guys are back, but we know it’s not like suddenly we’re going to have chemistry like we finished the season. That’s why we're here working hard to build that chemistry again. At least this time we know what the path, what the formula is to get there. We’re taking that formula with us and hopefully Wednesday we go out there and do it.”