CHARLOTTE, N.C. For the Heat’s front office, the personnel evaluation dynamic of this playoff run not only has been about determining which players thrive under pressure, but getting a read on which make tangible contributions toward winning.
In both regards, Goran Dragic and impending free agent James Johnson continue to demonstrate they’re keepers.
Dragic’s brilliant 33-point performance in Wednesday night’s 112-99 victory in Charlotte left him with the exact same scoring average (20.3) that he produced in Phoenix in 2013-14, when he was named third-team All-NBA.
His overall numbers are very comparable to that season. He’s averaging the same number of assists (5.9), slightly more rebounds (3.8 to 3.2) and shooting better on three-pointers (40.9 percent to 40.8).
He shot better from the field in that breakout season in Phoenix — 50.5 compared with 47.8 now — but said he’s a “more complete player” now.
“I think I’m a better defender,” he said. “In Phoenix, we didn’t play a lot of good defense. It was not a habit that I had.
“Offensively, I expanded my game. That year, a lot of points came from transition and three-point range, but I feel I didn’t have that mid-range game like I do now. Now I can use a lot of different shots — floaters, mid-range shots.”
Johnson, meanwhile, continued to demonstrate his value against Charlotte, scoring 26 points on 10-of-12 shooting in his first start of the season. He was filling in for the injured Luke Babbitt, who remains day to day with a hip flexor with the Heat playing at Toronto on Friday night.
“He’s always impactful if he’s coming from the bench or he’s starting a game,” Dragic said of Johnson. “We actually played a lot of pick-and-rolls with [power forward Johnson on Wednesday], not with [Hassan Whiteside], because with [Whiteside] they blitz us a lot.
“But J.J., he’s great at creating for others and he was knocking down shots, especially threes. And that gives us a different versatility.”
Johnson, who has said he wants to play the rest of his career in Miami, said he was comfortable starting, something he had done 140 times previously in his NBA career.
“I’ve played with these guys a lot,” Johnson said of opening with the starters. “I’ve been in that group with the same guys but deeper into the game. It was good starting with them and seeing what that felt like.”
Heat forward Udonis Haslem hasn’t played in 27 games in a row, dating to early February, and has logged just 129 minutes in 16 appearances all season.
But Johnson, unsolicited, on Wednesday cited Haslem’s inspirational words in the wake of the Heat’s recent losses to the Knicks and Nuggets.
“That was all Udonis,” Johnson said of the Heat playing with confidence in Wednesday’s win against Charlotte. “His speech, his words. He doesn’t talk a lot. When he does, you respect, you listen, you take it in.”
So what did Haslem say?
“I told them let’s not forget where we came from. Two months ago, people were kicking dirt on us. Now we put ourselves in an opportunity where we have a chance to make the playoffs,” Haslem said.
“I always say we deserve it. We deserve to be here. I finish with it with: ‘Why not us? Why can’t we be in the playoffs? We can’t we get a seventh seed or a sixth seed? Why can’t we get to the second round? We deserve it just as much as anybody else.’
“I want these guys to believe that. … Last game my focus was, ‘We’ve come too far on the last lap to collapse.’ ”
Tyler Johnson said the message resonated: “He understands what it takes to get into the playoffs and what it takes to make a run. He tells us all the time back on Jan. 15, when they were kicking dirt on us … what would be the point of fighting so hard to put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs and then settle for anything less than what got us here in the first place?”
Said Wayne Ellington of Haslem: “When we need someone to get on us, he’s always there. You can anticipate it. He talks with an assertive voice. Firm but not scolding us.”
▪ Charlotte coach Steve Clifford couldn’t stop raving about Whiteside after Wednesday’s 13-point, 20-rebound game, which broke Rony Seikaly’s franchise record for double-doubles in a season — Whiteside has 54.
“Listen, the other guys scored, but he was the difference in the game,” Clifford said. “Him, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, those guys are difference-makers because they’re not only big, they’re mobile, and he has a great quality, an ability to change shots.”
Friday: Heat at Raptors
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; Air Canada Centre, Toronto.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WRTO 98.3 FM (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 50-28.
Scouting report: The Raptors are looking to win the season series for the third year in a row. … All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry had 27 points in his return to the lineup on Wednesday night. … The Raptors are 6-1 at home on Friday nights this season.