Phoenix Suns: Goran Dragic’s playoff legend explained

Phoenix Suns, Goran Dragic (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Phoenix Suns, Goran Dragic (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

Goran Dragic and the Phoenix Suns had a captivating playoff run in 2010, only falling short to the eventual champions Los Angeles Lakers. Here is Dragic’s story. 

May 7, 2010, was a day forever etched in Phoenix Suns lore. Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals was yet another battle against their arch-nemesis, the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were surprisingly on the ropes, down 2-0 to a resurgent Suns squad. What was not as surprising was when the Spurs took a double-digit lead going into the fourth quarter, as their core group had done so many times before.

And then, a little-known Slovenian guard named Goran Dragic did the unthinkable: scoring 23 points in the fourth quarter in a breathtaking performance. The Spurs’ recent domination of the Suns was inexorably demolished by each and every one of Dragic’s incredible drives to the basket. His fearless step backs made him unstoppable.

Two days later, Game 4 was a formality: the Phoenix Suns swept the Spurs 4-0. Goran Dragic, forever a Phoenix Suns hero, the one to vanquish the mighty Spurs.

Two-time Phoenix Suns guard, Goran Dragic, was made for the playoffs.

Dragic’s moment as Phoenix Suns’ savior was not too surprising. It was just several years earlier than expected. Then-Suns GM Steve Kerr targeted Dragic in the NBA Draft as Steve Nash’s heir apparent. Dragic was supposed to be what several other potential Nash successors (Marcus Banks, anyone?) were not: a true successor to Nash. Then-Suns coach Alvin Gentry quickly instilled confidence in the young Dragic. Gentry mandated he be aggressive at all times.

Dragic was drafted to be the point guard of the future. He had a role in the present too. Back then, Dragic’s role looked more like Leandro Barbosa: a lead guard coming off the bench to provide instant offense.

Ironically, the Spurs traded both Barbosa and Dragic to the Suns on draft night. Dragic could have been Tony Parker’s successor in an alternate universe (and Barbosa could have succeeded Manu Ginobili as the Spurs’ sixth man).

10 years later, Goran Dragic is once again in the spotlight. Leading the Miami Heat to their own improbable playoff run, Dragic and Jimmy Butler are carrying a young Heat squad. Dragic and Butler took the long road to get to this point. Butler’s journey to get to his forever home in Miami is well-documented.

Much fewer people know Dragic was almost traded to clear out cap room for Butler. Miami had to work cap gymnastics to sign Butler to a max contract. Dragic’s $19.5 million expiring contract stood in the way. Dallas was supposed to be the trading partner, reuniting Dragic and fellow Slovenian Luka Doncic.

Long story short, that never happened. Dallas owner Mark Cuban explained it was due to a miscommunication as far as he could tell. Butler was instead signed-and-traded from Philadelphia for Heat swingman Josh Richardson.

Sometimes, being lucky is better than being good. Dragic would understand.

Flashback to 2010: Dragic’s fall from grace was quick. He was inexplicably traded to the Houston Rockets for Aaron Brooks midway through next season. Dragic signed back with Phoenix and was quickly anointed Steve Nash’s heir apparent. It was apparent Dragic was never going to enjoy the same level of success as Nash did, even after becoming an All-NBA player in 2014.

The Suns were rebuilding from the Steve Nash era.

When Dragic demanded a trade midway through the 2014-15 season, the Suns’ title window was long closed. Dragic understandably did not want to be part of a perpetually rebuilding team. The three-headed point guard monster of him, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas quickly proved to be untenable. As he was to be a free agent after the season, the Suns were limited in their choice of trading partners. Dragic was clear he only wanted a bigger market team.

Miami fit the bill. They gave up two first-round picks to secure Dragic – and then re-signed him to a 5-year $90 million contract the following offseason. Miami had seen better days. Their title window closed when LeBron James left for Cleveland in 2014. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were on their last legs. The dream of signing Kevin Durant in 2016 turned into the nightmare of signing Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and Tyler Johnson to massive long-term deals.

Dragic himself struggled with uneven play: he went from being an All-Star in the 2017-18 season to missing most of last season with a knee injury. Once last season ended, Dragic was widely expected to be traded to a contending team. Especially now Dragic was no longer starting, having been beaten out by undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn early in the season. Dragic once again reprised his past role in Phoenix: sixth man, now only being paid $19.5 million.

Not a bad life. Then the 2020 Playoffs hit.

Dragic got his starting spot back. Nunn had left the bubble due to personal reasons shortly prior to the playoffs. Dragic filled in as the starting point guard.

Kendrick Nunn has not started another game since.

Dragic and the Heat effortlessly swept an Indiana Pacers squad missing All-Star big man Donatas Sabonis. In Game 4, when the Pacers were on their death throes, the man known as the Dragon delivered the dagger.

The Heat were always favored to advance past Indiana. Even with Sabonis, Indiana overachieved just to get to the 4th seed. Sabonis was gone. Victor Oladipo reluctantly came back from injury to finish out the season.

But they figured to not last long against the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee, led by two-time MVP Giannis Antekounmpo, were destined to win their first championship in nearly 50 years.

Not so fast, says Goran Dragic.

The Bucks never had an answer for him. Dragic picked them apart like he did against San Antonio in 2010. Even if Giannis had stayed healthy, Miami would have won the series anyway simply because they wanted it more. This series-ending dagger from Dragic just would have happened in Game 6 or 7 had Giannis stayed healthy, instead of Game 5.

Miami’s sheer desire makes them one of my favorite teams. Jimmy Butler sets the tone. Dragic and Butler have a special chemistry on the court. With enough shooting and spacing, Dragic can just slither his way through the Boston defense.

I count seven Celtic defenders trying to guard Dragic. None of them succeeded. Not even Marcus Smart stood a chance.

It is so exciting to see Dragic in the spotlight once again. It was a long-time coming for him, having been the centerpiece on middling teams. In his darkest hour, when his contract was more valuable than his name, Dragic was about to be traded to the Dallas Mavericks.

Then, fate intervened. Dallas had a nice playoff run. But they are now home. Miami is still standing in the bubble. Goran Dragic is just meant for the playoffs.

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