Goran Dragic didn’t know what to expect when he came to the United States from Slovenia in 2008 to further his basketball career.
“My goal was to find my place. Hopefully I could play three or five years in the NBA and now it’s been 11,” Dragic said. “This is Year 11.”
It had been a decade of productive years for Dragic in the NBA. Year 11 is shaping up to be the same way.
Look no further than the Miami Heat’s 120-111 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday, one in which Dragic scored a season-high 28 points and led an ensemble performance of a rally in the fourth quarter to preserve the win after Miami watched the 19-point first-half lead it built up vanish.
And while the play itself might go unnoticed, a running layup five minutes into the second quarter gave Dragic his 10,000th career point, making him the first Slovenian player to reach that mark in the NBA.
“It means a lot,” Dragic, the humble point guard nicknamed “The Dragon,” said after the game. “You’re working hard all your life. ... Hard work pays off. I still love basketball. I still like to play. I like to practice and keep continuing to work hard.”
He’s continuing to excel, too.
Dragic, the Heat’s 32-year-old veteran point guard on a roster filled with up-and-comers, continues to be a steadying presence early in his 11th season in the league and fifth with the Heat.
Five games into a grueling, 82-game schedule a year after earning his first All-Star Game appearance, Dragic leads the Heat with 19 points and 5.4 assists per game. This is on a team that has seven players averaging at least 10 points per game. He has scored at least 20 points three times already this year, and the Heat is an astounding plus-62 with him on the floor early this year.
And while he’s not putting up gaudy numbers every night like Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, who had 42 against the Heat on Saturday, Dragic feels that he is capable of competing with anyone he is up against.
“I always want to accept the challenge,” Dragic said. “That’s the way I’m wired.”
The fourth quarter on Saturday was just the latest microcosm of that.
With the Heat trailing 104-101 with just over three minutes left in regulation, Dragic shifted momentum back into Miami’s favor when he took a shooting foul while being hit from behind by Meyers Leonard on a three-point attempt at the top of the arc.
“I just [went] into shooting motion,” Dragic said. “The guy needs to stop. If not, he’s going to foul anyway.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra added: “It turned the momentum or at least slowed it down. A very heady play. ... Look, I also like him taking those pull-up threes. So just the mentality of that and the courage to shoot those. But that was obviously a very smart play.”
Dragic made two of his three free-throw attempts to cut the deficit to 1. Lillard’s driving layup on the following possession made the score 106-103 Portland before Miami closed the game on a 17-5 run, making all five shots (including four threes) to seal the win.
Dragic served as the catalyst in those final three minutes, making a pair of threes — the first of which gave the Heat the lead back for good — and assisting on another.
“We didn’t hang our heads,” Dragic said. “We communicated, ‘OK. Next possession. Start to get better.’ At the end, we just exploded.”