Enter the Dragon — late, but right on time.
You knew it was a special Sunday for Goran Dragic when he rose for that slam dunk to give his Miami Heat a 24-point lead in the third quarter.
His dunks come far less often than full moons; this was his second of the entire NBA season.
Teammates not in the game sprang to their feet.
“You saw the whole bench extending,” as the man they call the Dragon would describe it later.
A moment after that Dragic’s layup made it a 28-point lead as the full house howled and the beaten Charlotte Hornets called timeout.
The day’s hero was engulfed in love, by the joyous bedlam from fans and by teammates as he came to the bench, starting with a chest bump from Chris Bosh.
“I was so tired,” Dragic said later of that moment. “But you see these guys and you know you have to produce.”
Oh, he produced, yes.
When it mattered most, in Game 7, Dragic led the Heat with 25 points in only three quarters’ work, the unmistakable spark in a 106-73 rout that lifts Miami into the playoffs’ second round starting Tuesday night.
The win marks a notable milestone for the franchise and coach Erik Spoelstra — the first Heat playoff series advance since 2006 accomplished without LeBron James. Perhaps that albatross disappearing from Spoelstra will allow the credit due him to finally find him.
Game 7s are supposed to be taut down to the dramatic finish — “These are the games I wish I could still be out there,” Hornets assistant Patrick Ewing told coach Steve Clifford before the game — but Miami’s win was so convincing that the entire fourth quarter was garbage time, with four of five starters (all but Joe Johnson) sitting elbow to elbow on the bench and enjoying themselves.
For Dragic, his timing could not have been better.
He’d had an off series marked by foul trouble and poor shooting (“I didn’t get a lot of rhythm”), averaging only 12.3 points entering Game 7.
Somebody had to step up Sunday, because you knew 34-year-old Dwyane Wade might have the quiet game he did (12 points) after his Game 6 heroics on Friday night, a return flight and then an early start.
It would be up to somebody else to close out this series.
Enter the Dragon, the title of a 1973 Bruce Lee movie that happily describes why Sunday’s matinee performance went so well for Miami.
This was the player Pat Riley traded for in the middle of last season and entrusted with the Heat’s future with that five-year, $85 million contract.
This was the difference maker.
“It was Goran’s moment,” Wade said. “Man, that was the Goran Dragic we all love, putting so much pressure on the defense. When he’s playing like that we are a tough team to beat.”
Luol Deng continued his strong first round with a 15-point game that included seven points early as Miami staked claim to the day.
But, without question, it was Dragic on Sunday who did the damage that unleashed upon the Internet a million of those Crying Michael Jordan memes and delighted South Florida by conjuring the image of the Hornets’ annoying Purple Shirt Guy fan wallowing in abject disappointment.
“He changed the whole thing today,” Clifford said of Dragic. “He was terrific.”
It was Dragic’s first career Game 7 and, “I’m going to be honest, it was pressure before the game,” he said. But that changed fast. He was aggressive, finding space and open lanes. Some of it was that Charlotte seemed tired, and Miami’s fast lead appeared to defeat the Hornets mentally.
“I felt like they didn’t have their legs and weren’t aggressive enough,” Dragic said.
One of the strengths of this Heat team is you don’t know where the next lift is coming from — all the more remarkable because the team’s highest-paid and best player, Bosh, has been out since February related to the recurrence of his blood clots.
The lift might come from Wade, even after all these years, as it did in Game 6. It might come from the shot-swatting wunderkind Hassan Whiteside. It’s been Deng a lot of this series. It might come from the combo of Rook 1 and Rook 2, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson.
Sunday it was Dragic.
The selflessness that allows the spotlight to spread and for teammates to share in each other’s moment and joy is another strength and delight about this season.
The winning locker room was all smiles.
Wade laughed in beseeching the media to hurry with questions because he had a backyard barbecue to get to, saying, “If you want to smell some of the barbecue you can get on a jet ski and come by like D.J. Khaled does sometimes.”
A short ways away a typically confident Whiteside was telling reporters, “I just tried to block everything. I almost blocked this interview but I like you guys, so I didn’t.”
Somebody else drew the biggest media throng around him. You couldn’t see him in the middle of it but if you could, you’d have seen Goran Dragic with the biggest smile of all.
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