In the end, he didn’t play much and scored only two points, but Goran Dragic still left the Staples Center Sunday night with a victory and a lifetime’s worth of memories from his first All-Star Game.
The Heat’s point guard, who became the third-oldest guard in NBA history to earn his first All-Star appearance at 31 years and 279 days old, played the third-fewest minutes of the 24 players selected for the game. But in the end, he left the court beaming after watching his captain LeBron James rally Team LeBron past Team Stephen 148-145 in one of the more thrilling All-Star games in recent memory.
“The whole All-Star weekend was a great experience,” said Dragic, who told Heat general manager Andy Elisburg afterward he was relieved he didn’t airball his first shot. “[I enjoyed] everything – getting to the Staples Center, meeting with the commissioner [Adam Silver], all the photos with the kids and Team LeBron, the introductions – especially when I got on the stage in front of so many people.
“It’s really an honor to be the first Slovenian in the All-Star Game. For my career too, this is going to be something that I’m going to talk to my children, my grandchildren [about]. I really am proud of this moment.”
Leaving with a win – and $100,000 – didn’t hurt either.
Unlike recent All-Star games where nobody on either team really played much defense, Sunday’s game was much more competitive on that front. Perhaps the gap in payouts for the game’s participants played a factor. The winners took home twice as much as previous years, and the losers only took home $25,000 (the same amount as years past).
James, who led the Heat to back-to-back NBA titles in 2012 and 2013 and four straight Finals appearances, finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and earned his third career All-Star MVP award after leading his team to the come-from-behind victory.
This was the first time ever the All-Star Game wasn’t played in its traditional format of East versus West. James and Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who received the most votes from fans for the game and were chosen captains, drafted their teams – and it felt and looked like everyone badly wanted to win down the stretch.
“I think myself and Steph we took it upon ourselves when we decided to do this format that we had to change the landscape of how the All-Star game was played,” said James, who was arguing with officials down the stretch of a tight game following a replay review of a ball knocked out of bounds. “The last couple years it wasn’t as competitive as we would have liked. As you can hear my voice you can tell how competitive it was on both sides.”
Team Stephen was led by Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (21 points, six rebounds and two assists), Blazers guard Damian Lillard (21 points) and Sixers center Joel Embiid (19 points, eight rebounds, two blocks).
“The league did an amazing job,” Dragic said. “You can see the last six minutes of the game was good defense, everybody was really competing. In the end, we got the victory.”
Dragic, the ninth player in Heat history to play in the All-Star game, finished with two points (1 of 3 shooting), four rebounds and an assist in only 11 minutes and 28 seconds of action. The only players who played fewer minutes were Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (four minutes, 28 seconds in the first half for Team LeBron) and T’Wolves swingman Jimmy Butler, who didn’t play at all for Team Stephen.
Dragic took the court for the first time as the sixth player off the bench for Team LeBron with 2:13 left in the opening quarter.
He took his first shot a couple possessions later – a 17-footer – and swished it. Dragic then went back to the bench with 8:09 remaining in the first half with two points (he missed a three-pointer), three rebounds, an assist and a turnover in six minutes and four seconds worth of work.
Dragic didn’t get back on the court until the start of the fourth quarter. He took one shot – a 12-footer – in his five minutes of second half action and missed it.
“I got four rebounds?” Dragic said with a grin afterward. “That’s more than my average.”
Athough he didn’t get into Sunday’s game until late in the opening quarter, Dragic, was the first healthy reserve on Team LeBron to be introduced to the crowd by comedian Kevin Hart (following the four injured reserves including Kevin Love whom Dragic replaced) before the game.
Hart, who threw playful jabs at every player during their individual introductions, said of Dragic: “They gave him the nickname The Dragon because like a dragon his breath will kill you.”
Dragic didn’t hear what Hart said about him until reporters told him after the game.
“I know he's a comedian,” Dragic said laughing. “He’s got good jokes, though. I like him a lot.”
Dragic said coming in he was going to try and enjoy every moment of All-Star weekend. He flew his parents in from Turkey and had his wife and kids with him in Los Angeles for the weekend.
A former second round pick of the Spurs in 2008 (he was traded to Phoenix on draft night), it took Dragic until his fifth season in the league to become an everyday starter. He finally earned league-wide recognition in 2014 when he earned the NBA's Most Improved Player Award and then All-NBA third team honors with the Phoenix Suns.
A half season later, Pat Riley traded for Dragic at the 2015 trade deadline, acquiring him in a three-team deal that cost the Heat two first round picks (the first will be conveyed this coming summer), Norris Cole, Danny Granger, Justin Hamilton and Shawne Williams.
“It’s been a long journey,” Dragic said Saturday at All-Star media day. “When I came to the NBA the first year I didn’t play a lot and it was really tough for me. I was thinking to go back to Europe. Luckily I had mentors like Steve Nash, Grant Hill, Amare Stoudamire [in Phoenix] next to me and they were always saying, ‘Be patient you’re going to get your opportunity as long as you stay ready.’ At the end of the day, that really happened and I got a chance, I played well. I’m really satisfied how my career went from that point on.”
This season everything came together beginning in September when he led Slovenia to a gold medal – its first ever in a team sport – at the Eurobasket tournament. Dragic earned MVP honors for his performance and then he followed it up by leading the Heat to as high as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference before the team lost seven of its last eight games before the All-Star break and stumbled to eighth at 30-28.
“He’s been playing at an All-Star level for awhile so you’re happy he finally got the recognition of being an All-Star,” Elisburg said after the game Sunday. “You really get a sense and appreciate how important it was for him. You appreciate it for the guys who haven’t gotten it for a period of time – to be able to get it now after a number of years in the league, how much joy he had with it.”
REPPING THE HEAT
The Heat, which will reconvene and practice as a team Wednesday night for the first time since losing at Philadelphia on Valentine’s Day, had several representatives at All-Star weekend:
▪ Wayne Ellington placed fourth in the three-point contest.
▪ Chet Kammerer, the team’s Vice President of Player Personnel, was honored Saturday morning with the 2018 Jerry Colangelo Award for character and leadership. Riley attended the event.
▪ Heat veterans Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem attended multiple league events.