ORLANDO — Goran Dragic knows he’s lived a charmed basketball life.
From his days as a teenage prodigy and young pro in his native Slovenia to his time in Spain’s ACB League to his 12 seasons (and counting) in the NBA, Dragic has starred at every stop.
He was once tabbed as the heir apparent and successor to two-time Kia MVP Steve Nash in Phoenix. He was voted the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2014, earning third-team All-NBA honors for his play that season. And in 2018 Dragic became an All-Star, realizing a dream he’d worked towards for years.
Dragic has experienced the emotional high of winning championships, MVP trophies and what he called the ultimate prize, leading the Slovenian National Team to the 2017 EuroBasket title and winning MVP honors alongside another homegrown prodigy, Luka Doncic, and the rest of his national team “brothers.”
And now he’s embarking on yet another title chase with his Miami Heat “brothers” as they prepare to engage with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals here in the Orlando bubble. (Game 1: 6:30 ET, ESPN)
The Heat swept the Indiana Pacers in the first round and upset the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals with a huge assist from Dragic, who moved from a sixth-man role to the starting lineup.
When Rookie of the Year runner-up and starter Kendrick Nunn was knocked out of commission for the NBA restart with a positive COVID-19 test, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra turned to Dragic to step into the void and the Heat have been on a roll ever since. They’ve lost just once in the playoffs, while Dragic has served up a reminder that he’s still got plenty left in his tank at 34.
“I was never concerned about [my] role on this team,” Dragic said. “That’s not how we operate. That’s not the way this team is built. Coach told me what he needed and it’s my job to do what needs to be done. That’s all.”
Dragic is averaging playoff career-highs in points (21.1 per game) while shooting a career-best 38.1 percent from beyond the 3-point line to go with 4.7 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals.
“We really rely on our young players and that’s a fact,” Spoelstra said. “But when you go into a playoff situation you need veteran, playoff-experienced players. And that’s who Goran is. He’s battled tested. He’s been through so many playoff pressure moments. To change his role on the fly and go back into the starting lineup, obviously that helped settle that group. And that’s not an indictment on anybody else, that’s just where we are right now.”
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NBA.com: Be honest, did you know at the beginning of this season that you guys were this sort of team, with all of these young guys and new faces?
Dragic: If I’m honest, no. I mean, at the beginning of a season you never know how things are going to turn out. You’re always going in positive, believing in the work that’s been done. But for me it was not easy. Coming from the injury and then had a meeting with Spo and he told me it was the best thing for me to come from the bench. But the best thing for me, when I look back, is that I just stay with it while these young guys and this team comes together. We had a lot of challenges to overcome and we did it as a team. And I think that’s something awesome and now we finally can show what we are made of. You know, we are playing amazing basketball right now and hopefully we can continue to play like that.
When you have an injury in this league, late in your career and move to the bench the way you did, do you worry at all that it closes the door on you being a starter again or that it somehow diminishes you as a player?
Dragic: I don’t think so. I wasn’t worried about anything like that. Spo talked to me and said exactly what he needed me to do and that was it. I’m going to play for my team first, always. So it’s not just about me, it’s about our team and what was needed.
When your role changes in this league, when things change, it’s easy for people to forget how good you are, that you were an All-Star a couple of years ago. Was it funny for you to hear people act like they just discovered your game again when the playoffs started, like you had vanished or something?
Dragic: You know, I never even kind of think about that. I always had that in my mind, you are good as long as your last game. And I know that I can play basketball, I just need to get back healthy, and once I did that I would be fine. I accept my role coming from the bench and I think so, that helped me a lot in my career, especially with Spo putting me in the right position and my teammates as well. From there on, it’s easy to play because I don’t have no worries, I’m just free. I’m just playing out there and having fun.
The way the veterans on this Heat team incorporated and mentored the young guys like Nunn and Tyler Herro seems like it happened seamlessly. What do you think was the key to finding that right balance as a group?
Dragic: When you see the work everybody put in and the way we came together working out before the season, it was obvious we had a good group to be together. I had experience on my national team, playing with younger guys like Luka and other guys, so [I] understand the role a vet has to play. You do the job you do, whatever that is, but still make sure to come together as a team. That’s the only way it works. No … what’s the word? No [jealousy], just hard work together.
When you talk about your career and the success you’ve had at every stop, the championships back home and in international competition, how much do you lean on those experiences now that the Heat is in a position to potentially play for a championship?
Dragic: That was huge for my career, especially playing for my national team for 12 years. And every time they put us as one of the favorites, we have a good team but we [were] not there. And it’s always tough. When we achieved that goal [in 2017] it felt like 100 pounds came off my shoulders. It was something unbelievable for my country, for me, my teammates. And yeah, Luka definitely, he came to the team and we had great chemistry and it’s just something amazing that we achieved.
Speaking of chemistry, when did you really notice that this Heat team had that kind of chemistry? When did you know this is what it was going to be, even with Jimmy [Butler] coming in and all the new pieces?
Dragic: Yeah, I think so … after training camp. We already been in the gym before training camp, so we really connected in training camp, when the whole group was basically 24-7 together and you could see everybody likes to hang out and we went together to dinners. You just see that we had that spark and I think that’s [what] helps us a lot to kind of grow as a team.
When you have that chemistry and it’s interrupted by the pandemic and the shutdown and then you have to come down here to the bubble and see if you can get it all back, is there even anything you can compare it to?
Dragic: I compare it a little bit to EuroBasket, you know, when you go with the national team and we all eat together and we [are] all in the same hotel. Of course, you have more freedom, you can go out. And I mean, I understand with this pandemic going on, it has to be the way it is here and be careful. But yeah, if you’re mentally strong and you have good teammates that you can hang out [with] every single day, that really helps out because you’re not thinking about the other stuff, You’re just thinking about the main thing, and that’s basketball.
I know when you’ve been in the league as long as you have and you’ve had success, All-Star games and everything, you start to realize that those things can be there one day and gone the next. Do you think about that now as a veteran leader when you’re trying to explain to your guys that you have to seize this moment in the conference finals?
Dragic: Every day, every day. You know I’ve been blessed to play this sport and to be so many years in the best league in the world in the NBA, this is my second conference finals. The first one, I didn’t really play that much … maybe 15 minutes a game or something, but this is something that you have to take advantage, you have to enjoy it. You have to give everything you’ve got because, you know maybe this is the last one. You just never know, is this an opportunity you cannot pass up. You have to do everything in [your] power or possession to do good.
That first conference finals was with Phoenix in 2010 and here you are in 2020 finally making it back. Did young Goran Dragic have any idea at that time how long it would take to see this again?
Dragic: Kobe. Kobe … man. Kobe, he was a monster. What he did in that conference finals against us was something unbelievable. I know Grant Hill was playing unbelievable defense in that series, just unbelievable defense, but it was just better offense. I never forget how Kobe played in that series. That’s something that I knew I was always going to have in my mind. Basically, he beat us by himself. It was something special. He was so special.
I imagine you feel like Kobe Bryant seized that moment the way you’re talking about you and your guys have to now?
Dragic: It does, it really does. I mentioned this to our young guys, to all of them — Kendrick, Bam [Adebayo], Tyler and Duncan [Robinson] — and I said, don’t take this for granted because this is not normal. Don’t think that this is normal. It’s not normal, that you … look, I was in the conference finals in 2010 and now we here in 2020. It’s been past 10 years, and so I just tell them, you know, enjoy every moment, enjoy this and try to do your best. And I’m hoping that those young fellas still going to have many, many more of these experiences. But you never know. This beautiful game is crazy like that. You just never know.
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