ORLANDO, Fla. — After four months away from the game, sitting at home, Goran Dragic signed with the Nets.
The 35-year-old guard had about a week to get in game shape, and another week before he was handed the keys to the offense and told to run it.
How quickly dragic has been thrust into a pivotal role and a starting spot would shock many, if the Nets weren’t in such dire straits.
“Not really, with all the stuff that’s going on,” coach Steve Nash said before their game Tuesday night against the Magic. “If we were healthy every day, then maybe he wouldn’t have to play as many minutes as he’s played this far. But as far as my trust and knowing the impact he can make on a game, I knew what he could do and I knew he could really fit incredibly well with our group.
“We’d like to keep him in a range though that is a little more reasonable, especially in some of these stretches where he’s playing four in six nights. It’s not easy to throw him out there after having three or four months without playing and playing over 35 minutes consistently, so we’ve got to try to protect him if we can. But we’re in a little bit of desperation here with guards out of the lineup.”
Nash knows Dragic better than most. The Slovenian guard was his backup for parts of three seasons when Nash was starring for the Suns, and the pair developed a friendship that lasts until this day.
When the Nets needed backcourt stability — with James Harden traded away, Kyrie Irving ineligible for home games and Ben Simmons nowhere near ready to play — they signed Dragic.
He had not played since the start of the season (the first four games with Toronto, then a Nov. 13 cameo), but Dragic joined the Nets on Feb. 22 and rapidly worked himself into game shape. He has been handed increasing playing time. Irving is set to miss the next three games and both Seth Curry and Cam Thomas were out Tuesday, so the Nets will need every one of those minutes they can get.
“Physically I’m good. So I got in shape in one week; it’s crazy,” Dracic said. “The last game I played 38 minutes. I even talked to Steve and tell him ‘Steve, that’s too much.’ But he’s like ‘Yeah, we don’t have nobody else, a couple of guys are hurt.’ So, do whatever it takes for the team.
“I still have to have to catch my rhythm, but I’m just happy to be out there and to help and try to organize everybody and put the right situation and try to make it easier.”
With Harden gone, Irving was the only lead guard left on the roster. Curry and Patty Mills are more shooters, Thomas is a microwave scorer off the bench, and Bruce Brown is a defensive glove. But with Irving ineligible at home (he’ll be able to play just three more games this regular season), the Nets need Dragic.
Their last game without him was Feb. 24 against the Celtics, and Thomas logged 30:55 in that game. But since then? Dragic has cut into the rookie’s time precipitously.
The pair split that same court time evenly over Dragic’s first four games, with the veteran getting 18.5 minutes and Thomas dipping to 18.3. But in the four games previous to Tuesday, Dragic averaged 27.6 minutes while Thomas’ time plummetted to just 5.1 before he missed the game against the Magic.
Still, James Johnson — who played alongside Dragic in Miami — said the Slovenian is the same dogged player he was with the Heat, and as Dragic plays his way into a better shape, he’s going to show those winning ways.
“The same Dragon I’ve been knowing. Pick-and-roll guru, someone who takes the challenges and loves to compete,” Johnson said. “There’s still levels that Goran can get to. I know he knows that, a lot of us feel that. But it’s a ramp up, and for not playing as long as he hasn’t played, I think he played really.”