Packing The Paint: Why Goran Dragic Struggled Against The Hornets

Insight6 years ago5 min readNekias Duncan

Friday night’s game against the Charlotte Hornets was an emotional roller coaster.

The good times included a three-point barrage from Rodney McGruder, post competence from Hassan Whiteside and a 19-point lead with nine minutes to go in the third quarter.

The bad times included James Johnson YOLO moments, Whiteside losing his cool and getting into foul trouble, and blowing the aforementioned 19-point lead. Outside of a too-little-too-late run in the final two minutes, the HEAT had an alcohol-inducing second half that ended in a 97-91 loss.

There was plenty of blame to go around for the loss, but a chunk of it fell on Goran Dragic. Despite being one of two players to finish with a positive plus-minus at plus-4—Luke Babbitt (lol) was a team-high plus-5—Dragic didn’t have a good outing.

Sure, he racked up nine dimes and went 3-for-5 from 3 en route to a 14-point outing. Plus, SportVU defensive stats, which aren’t the end-all be-all, calculated Charlotte players shot 2-of-11 from the field with Dragic as the nearest defender, according to their tracking data. And the eye-test backs that up a bit. Dragic did a solid job of staying connected to Kemba Walker when defending high pick-and-rolls and funneled him into help whenever he was beaten.

But conversely, Dragic shot 1-for-7 inside the three-point arc (4-for-12 overall), turned the ball over four times, and never really looked confident on offense.

The biggest reason Dragic could never get going is because he couldn’t get downhill. That’s the simple explanation. But there are a couple of layers to pull back on this.

First and foremost, the Hornets—specifically head coach Steve Clifford—deserve credit for a simple, yet effective game plan. Much like they did in Games 3-7 in their first-round series last year, the Hornets elected not to blitz the high pick-and-roll while also walling off the paint.

It was effectively a dare: “We’re not letting you penetrate, so you if you can beat us from outside, we’ll live with it.” Everyone and their mothers know that Dragic thrives when he’s able to push the pace, penetrate, and either finish at the rim (career percentage of 62.5 percent inside of six feet) or find others via kick out passes.

Via NBA stats, Dragic only took two shots inside of ten feet, and only one of those came inside of five feet (he missed it).

Let’s break down one of Dragic’s plays from the first half:

This ended in a Babbitt three and a Dragic dime, but pay attention to how Charlotte defended this.

Walker forced Dragic baseline, with Roy Hibbert dropping down to contain the drive. Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist each stepped into the paint to cut off Whiteside’s roll to the rim, while Marvin Williams stepped up to take away the pass to Justise Winslow in the corner as Dragic drives baseline.

Dragic was able to get past Hibbert, and Batum didn’t help quickly enough. That gave Dragic just enough space and time to find Babbitt, but even that could’ve been shut down had Kidd-Gilchrist not hesitated on the rotation and eventual close-out.

Here’s another play, roughly five minutes later:

On this drawn up play after the timeout (ATO), Dragic looped around a pair of (poorly set) screens and caught the ball on the move (which is good). However, Cody Zeller—who’s much quicker than Hibbert—was able to cut off the baseline while Walker and Batum cut off the passing angle for Whiteside. The only option Dragic had was a pass to Waiters in the corner, and Williams picked it off rather easily.

Charlotte made things tough, but the Heat made things even more difficult on themselves, as well.

There weren’t many good screens set for Dragic from what I saw, and almost none of them helped him get downhill.

One of the few that did achieve that was set by Winslow on this set near the end of the first half:

Even on this play, Zeller did a solid job of keeping Dragic out of the paint and forcing a tough stepback jumper.

For most of the night, Dragic never really tried to force the issue either, going away from high screens in Wade-ian fashion but without the snaking or mid-range efficiency to match it.

The San Antonio Spurs are up next on Sunday, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them attempt to wall off the paint much like Charlotte did on Friday. Miami will need a more aggressive Dragic to reverse the issue, and he’ll likewise need better screens from his bigs to free him.