Ethan J. Skolnick

Miami Heat’s Goran Dragic ready to sink his teeth into a playoff run

Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic, middle, is about to participate in his first playoff series as a starter.
Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic, middle, is about to participate in his first playoff series as a starter. AP

The tough part? It wasn’t losing the tooth on Tuesday. That’s common by now. Nor was there much pain, since it was a replacement of a replacement of a replacement.

The tough part for Goran Dragic was telling his wife Maja, who isn’t a lover of the Lloyd Christmas look.

“Not again!” she said.

You see, Maja had not seen the Heat’s game against Detroit, understandably reoccupied as she prepared for the couple’s move, with their two young children, to a new house on Friday.

At least the tooth will be squared off soon. Even while failing spectacularly Wednesday in Boston — squandering Dragic’s speedy start and a 26-point lead — the Heat secured the third seed and home court, creating a little time for dental and familial bonding in Miami.

But not too much time.

That’s because Dragic, who settled into South Florida as his family arrived early in the season, and settled into the Heat system as that season progressed, is arguably the Heat’s most important player in the series starting Sunday against the Charlotte Hornets.

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Sure, the Heat needs determined but also disciplined play from center Hassan Whiteside against the crafty Al Jefferson; and, naturally, Miami requires Dwyane Wade to find a few flashes of former playoff magic. Yet the success might need to start with Dragic, who will not only start in the playoffs for the first time, but against Charlotte’s leading scorer.

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“They’ve got Kemba [Walker], who is super fast, and they put him in pick-and-rolls,” Dragic said of a fifth-year pro who averaged 21.1 points on 37.1 percent three-point shooting. “And then everyone spaces.”

Dragic’s defensive metrics were actually quite decent this season, holding opponents roughly four percentage points below what they typically shoot from two and three-point range. But that doesn’t account for any defensive scrambling that will occur if Walker beats Dragic by a step, leaving other Charlotte shooters open.

So he needs to tighten up on defense, while playing loose and free on the other end. There’s some precedent for that in Dragic’s sparse playoff history — just 16 games since entering the NBA in 2008, all during Phoenix’s 2010 sprint to the Western Conference finals.

“That was a long time ago,” he said, smiling.

It was, but he averaged 7.6 points in 14.8 minutes — which extrapolates to 18.5 points per 36 minutes — as a backup to his hoops idol, Steve Nash. And generated his own magical postseason memory, one that lives forever on YouTube.

Dragic had shot just 2 of 12 in the first two games of a second-round series against the Spurs before making a three-pointer late in the third quarter of Game 3. Then he ripped off 23 points in the fourth quarter alone, his 26 points in just 17 minutes the most ever in the shot clock era for someone playing less than 20 minutes in a playoff game. He made pullup jumpers, short turnarounds, spinning layups and even an off-balance three-pointer while getting fouled, as Nash fist-pumped near the bench and coach Alvin Gentry implored the second-year Slovenian import to stay aggressive.

Dragic has felt that good a couple of other times.

“But that was different, because it was a playoff game, especially against San Antonio,” he said. “We had a lot of trouble with them, they always beat us and we swept them that year. That was one of the special moments. Every time I had a different guy on me.”

That’s the day where we knew Goran was going to be a star player. “I’m not sure who scouted him when he was playing overseas, but we knew at that point it was a great pickup. We saw it some during the regular season, also at practice. He was learning from Steve. But to see him step into that role in the playoffs, and blossom, that’s when I knew he was going to be really good.

Amar’e Stoudemire, the former Suns star who watched Dragic’s explosion from the sideline

It was more than a 110-96 win, it was Dragic announcing himself.

“That’s the day where we knew Goran was going to be a star player,” said Amar’e Stoudemire, the former Suns star who watched Dragic’s explosion from the sideline. “I’m not sure who scouted him when he was playing overseas, but we knew at that point it was a great pickup. We saw it some during the regular season, also at practice. He was learning from Steve. But to see him step into that role in the playoffs, and blossom, that’s when I knew he was going to be really good.

“We need that again.”

The Heat probably won’t get that again, but it does need similar spirit and poise. Dragic isn’t a novelty anymore. He’s a necessity, a core Heat player and a playoff starter for the first time, with a challenging matchup.

“I was looking for this opportunity for a long time,” Dragic said. “Now that I finally made the playoffs again, I’m looking forward to those games. It’s going to be something new in my career.”

His first full Heat regular season presented plenty of new challenges, and didn’t go entirely as hoped. Now he starts over, as a playoff starter, likely with a full fixed set of choppers. He must be the Heat’s jagged edge, slicing the Hornets’ defense a little like he did that day in San Antonio, until Charlotte also starts to shout “not again!”

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