The Miami Heat were not a bad team in the regular season, but no one saw this coming. They're 10-2 in the playoffs, ran through the No. 1 overall seed Milwaukee Bucks with little trouble and have a 2-1 lead over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. In all three of these series, they've been the lower seed.
Any time a team goes on a surprising run like this, there's no single reason. But with the Heat, much of their improvement from the regular season is thanks to Goran Dragic. The veteran point guard came off the bench for all but one game before the shutdown, but when Kendrick Nunn was sidelined due to COVID-19, Dragic moved into the starting lineup.
While the circumstances surrounding the change weren't what anyone wanted, it's been a resounding success for the Heat, and makes you wonder why Dragic hadn't been starting all along. He's found his All-NBA form once again, putting up a team-high 21.3 points per game in the postseason, and is sixth-best among players still participating. When he's been on the court in the playoffs, the Heat are plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions; when he sits, they're minus-1.5. The only Miami player who's had a better impact from a statistical perspective is Bam Adebayo.
In Games 1 and 2 of the ECF against the Celtics, Dragic kept up his brilliant play, going for 29 points, seven rebounds and four assists in Game 1, and 25 points and five assists in Game 2. Both, of course, were wins for Miami.
Yet in Game 3, Dragic was nowhere to be found. He finished with a playoff-low 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting, and turned the ball over a playoff-high five times. As Dragic struggled, so did the Heat, losing Game 3 by 10 after trailing the entire way.
The obvious question, then, is what happened? What, if anything, did the Celtics do to limit "The Dragon" in Game 3, and can it translate to the rest of the series?
First, let's take a look at how Dragic had success in the first two games. The most obvious thing that stands out is just how simple things were for the Heat point guard to start the series. Whether it was clear lanes to the rim, or wide-open, spot-up 3s, Dragic was living the easy life.
This isn't a knock against Dragic, but a lot of guys could have great games when they're being defended like this. Here we are early in the second quarter of Game 1, and Kemba Walker is just kind of hanging out as Dragic brings the ball up the floor. He isn't even in a defensive stance before Dragic is blowing past him for an easy finish in the paint:
In another example, this time from the third quarter of Game 2, Dragic sets up shop at the top of the key, winding down the seconds to hold for the final shot. Eventually Kelly Olynyk arrives with a high ball screen, and Dragic just coasts in for a bucket with the same difficulty as a pre-game layup line:
And even if Dragic wasn't personally profiting, the Celtics' lack of pressure on him made it painless for the Heat to get into their offense. Here, in the fourth quarter of Game 1, he comes up the left side of the floor, faces no resistance whatsoever, and doesn't even have to break a sweat as he drops the pocket pass in to Adebayo, who gets fouled:
Moving on to Game 2, let's take a look at this sequence late in the first quarter. Dragic brings the ball up the floor and actually has to slow down and pause before initiating the action because Olynyk fell down. Jayson Tatum sees this, but still just stands there and lets him be. The Celtics do a solid job after this point, and force a miss, but it's a good example of how unbothered Dragic was in the first two games:
Contrast that to Game 3, where on the very first possession, Marcus Smart met Dragic in the backcourt, and pressured him well above the 3-point line. The Heat actually ended up getting a solid look from 3, which Jae Crowder missed, but the tone was set. Dragic was in for a long night:
It didn't take long at all for the effort to pay off. Just 90 seconds later, Smart plants himself in the backcourt after a Celtics basket, and waits for Dragic to get the inbounds pass. The veteran point guard decides he doesn't even want to bother with bringing the ball up against Smart, and tosses it off to Jimmy Butler. A short time later, Adebayo gets called for an offensive foul. Immediately, the Heat were out of rhythm:
During an interview Monday, Smart talked about the Celtics' effort against Dragic, saying, "Games 1 and 2 he was very comfortable. Game 3 we came out and decided to make him very uncomfortable."
They certainly did that, and Smart was a key factor. Per the league's stats website, Smart spent 4 minutes and 33 seconds guarding Dragic in the first two games of the series combined. In Game 3, he was on Dragic for 3 minutes and 34 seconds -- over two minutes more than any other Celtic.
With Smart leading the way, the rest of the Celtics followed. Late in the first quarter, Jaylen Brown picks Dragic up in the backcourt, forcing him to get rid of the ball. With Dragic out of the play, Tyler Herro tries to run a pick-and-roll instead, and turns it over:
Near the end of the third quarter, it was Kemba Walker's turn. He again picks Dragic up in the backcourt, and eventually pesters him into a turnover. Remember, in the same situation in Game 2, Dragic was allowed to melt away the clock before coasting in for an easy layup:
In the fourth quarter, Tatum got in on the action. He gets switched onto Dragic, and really makes him work just to get the ball on a dribble handoff. A few seconds later, he's switched onto the Slovenian again, and jumps out, using his length to force Dragic to loop a difficult pass into Adebayo, who ends up missing a tough turnaround:
All night long, each and every member of the Celtics was committed to making Dragic miserable, and it was a huge factor in their crucial win. In pressuring Dragic into his worst game of the playoffs, they completely disrupted what the Heat were trying to do. The Heat posted a dismal offensive rating of 87.3, and were outscored by 29 points in Dragic's 28 minutes in Game 3.
Moving forward, you would expect that Dragic is too tough and experienced, and Erik Spoelstra is too smart to allow this kind of performance to happen again. Miami can set higher ball screens to make it easier for Dragic to bring the ball up the floor, and give him more space to get downhill at Boston's defenders. In addition, they can play him off-ball more often to take advantage of his catch-and-shoot ability from 3-point land -- 42 percent in the playoffs. Plus, the fact that Dragic has now seen this kind of pressure will make it easier for him to adapt.
At the same time, if Brad Stevens continues to put Smart on Dragic, and the team as a whole brings the necessary effort and energy each game, the Heat point guard will have his work cut out for him the rest of the way. After all, the Celtics have the best defense in the playoffs for a reason. They have the talent, length and versatility on the perimeter to really frustrate opponents. Even assuming Dragic won't score 11 points per game the rest of the way, the Celtics will be in great shape if they can continue to limit his production.