Dion Waiters calls it “the cold shoulder.”
It’s the move Goran Dragic has been using for years to help create space around the basket and one Waiters has begun to adopt at the urging of his Heat backcourt mate over the last couple weeks.
“I think it’s lethal, man,” Waiters said of how Dragic digs his shoulder into the chest of opposing big men as he drives toward the rim. “I don’t think bigs be expecting that pop once they go down there.”
“Especially from a skinny white guy,” Dragic says as he overhears Waiters talking to reporters in the locker next to his.
“I think after they feel that, their chest feels a little sore and you keep going down there,” Waiters continued. “That’s what he do, man. Why not go to a guy who finishes with the best of them?”
They might not be every general manager’s dream backcourt combination, but what Waiters, a 25-year-old former fourth overall pick from Philly, and Dragic, a 30-year-old former second round pick from Slovenia, have accomplished together over the Heat’s last seven games cannot be ignored.
Together, they’ve averaged 45.4 points (fifth-most among all NBA starting backcourt duos), 10.5 assists (more than Toronto’s All-Star tandem of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry), shot 51.9 percent from the field (better than any other backcourt duo in the league) and 47.7 percent from three-point range (yes, even better than Golden State’s Klay Thompson and Steph Curry) during the stretch.
More importantly for the Heat (18-30), they’ve shared the ball and taken turns beating up on the opposing team. In Saturday night’s win over Detroit, Waiters, averaging 22.1 points per game and shooting 48.7 percent from three-point range over this strech, scored 13 first quarter points to pace the Heat. Dragic, averaging 23.3 points and shooting 54.2 percent from the field over the winning streak, then took over in the second half, scoring 17 of his game-high 23 points over the final two quarters to lead Miami to the finish.
In just 20 starts together (the Heat is 11-9 in those games), Dragic and Waiters already have developed the kind of chemistry it took Dragic and Dwyane Wade a lot longer to find last season.
“First off, me and Dion, our lockers are right next to each other,” Dragic said of why he and D-Wait have seemed to hit it off better than he and D-Wade did. “We’re in the same neighborhood. We talk all the time. [Secondly] Dion has a different game than D-Wade. He has a similar game [to me]. He likes to get into the paint. He likes to attack. When you have one guy on the left side and another guy on the right side, if they take first option away, you have the second option. His game makes it easier for me. It’s just a better fit.”
Waiters, who missed 20 games earlier this season with a groin tear, was never really a great fit in Cleveland or Oklahoma City because he’s a player who needs to have the ball in his hands to probe and to create opportunities for himself and others off dribble penetration. In Cleveland, Kyrie Irving served that purpose. In OKC it was Russell Westbrook.
With Dragic, a former Third Team All-NBA guard in Phoenix, he’s found almost the perfect counterpart to share the load with because both “are capable of playing off the ball,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
“They can space for each other, run offense and both guys can feel like they’re themselves,” he continued.
Said Waiters: “We’re similar guys. We like to attack, get in the paint and put pressure on the defense. When guys collapse, we know we got the sprays and we got open guys. And if they don’t [collapse], we know we can get to the basket and then we give them the cold shoulder. It’s tough. You just got to pick your poison. If G got it going, I get the hell out of his way.”
Before Waiters, Dragic and the Heat offense got going during this seven-game win streak, Miami was tied for 26th in three-point shooting (33.8 percent) and Waiters couldn’t finish around the rim, shotting 42.5 percent within eight feet of the basket. Since Miami started it’s winning streak, Waiters is shooting 58.7 percent within eight feet of the rim and the Heat has led the NBA in three-point shooting accuracy (42.4).
Dragic credits the improvement to better team chemistry – and more court time together for him and Waiters.
“Chemistry is huge for all the teams in the league,” he said. “I feel like Dion, I know what he’s going to do. Even with JJ [James Johnson], that little pocket pass we got now. We just feel comfortable. We know where we need to be, who is going to roll, who is going to flare, who is going to spot up. Now, I feel like I can play the game with my eyes closed. I know where the guy is going to be. That’s what makes it so much easier.”
Dragic also says he’s not sure why Waiters was dubbed a bad teammate prior to coming to Miami.
“I don’t know how all these teams in the past [said what they said about] Dion,” he said. “Everybody understands you just need some time to get to know people. He’s not a bad teammate. He’s the opposite. He wants to win and I think that’s the most important thing.”