PHOENIX — An hour before the Suns faced the Pelicans on Friday night, Goran Dragic seemed doubtful to lace them up. He failed to go through shootaround because of an ankle sprain, and Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek wondered how to gauge the truth when the point guard was undoubtedly going to tell him he was able to play. After all, the Slovenian’s parents were visiting U.S. Airways Center, taking in a rare opportunity to watch their son live.
Hornacek consulted with trainer Aaron Nelson after Dragic claimed he was good to go.
“Aaron goes, ‘I can usually tell when he’s kind of fibbing about it,’ ” Hornacek said. “He goes, ‘I think he’s good.’ ”
Turns out, it was a solid decision. Phoenix won 116-104 behind Dragic’s 40 points on 14-of-21 shooting. By the end of the late finish, Dragic left to MVP chants as he finished off New Orleans at the foul stripe and then left for the final 10 seconds to join a rowdy Phoenix bench.
“I never thought they would cheer that for me,” he said later. “I heard that when I was here for Steve (Nash). It’s a great feeling especially, those four free throws when the whole crowd stand up and cheer. It’s something special in my career I am probably going to remember my whole life.”
How Dragic did it so effortlessly was clearly a combination of things.
For one, Dragic can score in a number of different ways. He hit spot-up threes and other deep balls off switches on pick-and-rolls. When he was guarded physically by starting Pelicans point guard Brian Roberts, Dragic used screens to cut between two players, his most impressive play came on a spin move that split a thin gap when he seemed wrapped up by two New Orleans players. When Dragic had a second-year pro in Austin Rivers guarding him, he bullied his way under the basket.
Did I mention he was looking like a scratch an hour before the game?
“All-NBA guys, they play through things and they play well through things,” Hornacek said. “They don’t sit out, bumps and bruises. Goran’s always been that way. Heck, he cracked his head earlier in the season and he wanted to go out in the second half, and I don’t know he could see what was going on out there so we had to take him out.
“I think everybody knows about Goran Dragic now. Or they should.”
It didn’t help that New Orleans’ defense was worse than broken.
Phoenix shot 54 percent overall and hit 43.5 percent of its three-pointers. It wasn’t likely a happy sight for Pelicans coach Monty Williams that his team allowed the Suns to hit 10-of-23 three-point shots, yet did so while covering three-point shooters rather than using any semblance of help defense to stop Dragic, who scored too many points cutting to the hoop on failed pick-and-roll coverages or by coming off curl screens.
“They didn’t jump (over to help) so much,” Dragic said of New Orleans’ help defenders. “They were so scared of Channing popping back. I can get past Anthony Davis, (Alexis) Ajinca or somebody else. When I came to the middle of the floor, they had no help-side (defense) so I could just lay it up.”
Luke Babbitt is hedging and failing at doing so, while Roberts is chasing Dragic over a screen. At this point, it’s clear Dragic is going to turn the corner, and at the top of the picture, you see Anthony Davis watching and having the time to stop Dragic if he gives up a corner three-point opportunity to P.J. Tucker.
But that turned in to this:
Davis just swipes at the ball and Dragic gets to the hoop easily.
Here’s another terrible piece of defense.
Again, the Pelicans hedge and Davis does a better job this time by at least bumping Dragic off course. The Dragon is pretty strong, but with his defender trailing and New Orleans hedging more than completely trapping, you would expect a player to help out behind the two-man game. In this case, Eric Gordon’s up, and he should have an easy time with Gerald Green literally standing straight up with his hands on his hips, unready to shoot.
Just more half-assed reachin’. Of course, someone from the weak side is also expected, but at the cup, Dragic saw continued success scoring above big men.
It got so bad thereafter, one play involved Davis finally rotating from his man standing in the paint but getting kneed in the groin by Dragic as the point guard scored at the rim.
Hornacek said Dragic is at the point in his career where he’s seen about every coverage imaginable. But it’s Dragic’s shooting that has teams so concerned about him. Now, the guards are going over screens, forcing the bigs to handle a crafty player with the handles and speed to get by them. As evidenced, he has the athletic ability and size to finish above NBA big men, and through contact.
The best defense Dragic has seen came in the Miami game on Feb. 11. Dragic went 4-of-12 and Miami used their speedy bigs and pesky guards to trap him, forcing him to get the ball out and hope his teammates could make plays.
“Sometimes they go under, you have to shoot it,” Dragic said. “If they jump a little bit like they did tonight, I have to go around them. I think it’s so much easier if I can get in the middle of the paint. Then it’s just a reading situation.
“I would say the toughest game for me is the Miami game, when they double-teamed me the whole game,” he added. “That was tough. You don’t get to read or nothing. You have to pass that ball quick, and it’s more of a 4-on-3.”
“We finally got a group in there in the fourth quarter that played some defense. Those guys helped each other, they fought over the screens.” — Jeff Hornacek on the turnaround in the fourth quarter
“I talked with coach, I shouldn’t react like that anyway. They try to push, grab, but that’s part of the game. That was stupid for me, that I react like that. Next time, have to be more smart.” — Goran Dragic on his Brian Roberts dust-up