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The Dragon isn't done breathing fire...just yet
ISTANBUL (FIBA EuroBasket 2017) - In the crucial game against France to decide Group A's top position, a sizzling Goran Dragic nailed a step back three, turned to the dejected French fans and cheekily did the "cooking" gesture made famous by NBA superstar James Harden.
For such a modest star, it was an unusual show of exuberance from Dragic but confirmed a prevailing belief: the Slovenian captain is on a mission in his international swansong. The 31-year-old was arguably the Group Phase's best player scoring 20-plus points in every game to inspire Slovenia to an unbeaten record.The point guard perfectly found the right balance between passion and poise to stabilize a talented Slovenian team with lofty title dreams. Dragic, the crafty left-handed point guard, set the tone immediately in this tournament for Slovenia by playing with purpose and energy.
He doesn't blow by defenders but his smarts gets him past them at will. Physically strong for his size, Dragic can finish at the rim but he also has the vision to kick out to Slovenia's slew of shooters. Those attributes are well known to anyone who has followed his stellar NBA career, which peaked during his recent season with Miami Heat, averaging 20 points on 40 percent from three.
However, it has been Dragic's unwavering passion at FIBA EuroBasket 2017 that leaves an impression. After playing in his first senior international tournament at the 2006 FIBA Basketball World Cup, Dragic admits his final campaign is emotional. "During game days it is emotional, especially seeing the fans but it's of course exciting being part of this tournament," he told fiba.basketball.
After being traded to Miami in 2015, Dragic found himself amid the Heat's famed professional culture. He learned plenty about leadership from NBA championship stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh before stepping up into a more senior role once they departed.
Dragic has passed on all of that wisdom to his Slovenian teammates. "To spend time with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh you learn how to communicate, how to be a role model and a leader," he says. "I lead (Slovenia) by example. I try to be the voice of the team. I try to be the first and last guy at training. It's the first time for some at EuroBasket so I want to show them the way."
He has particularly shown affection for Luka Doncic, Slovenia's wunderkind, most notably at the end of a tight Group Phase game against Greece where he screamed to the 18-year-old "you are the future of the Slovenian team." After a slow start to the tournament, Doncic has built into his role, highlighted by a dominant all-round performance against Ukraine in the Round of 16.
With Dragic's constant encouragement ringing in his ears, a more confident Donic has taken the load off his captain and made Slovenia a far more dangerous team. Against Ukraine, Dragic had an uncharacteristically poor game finishing with just 5 points from 2-of-12 shooting but it didn't matter as Doncic took over in a pleasing sight for Slovenia's present and future.
Dragic says Doncic's maturity stands out. "He has a lot of experience playing for Real Madrid," he says. "He is all set, I don't think he needs advice. The whole country is so proud to have this diamond...a special talent like Luka."
For Slovenian fans, it's a pity their respective peaks won't match up but, nonetheless, big things are expected of Slovenia right now with the duo firing. Slovenia has had much success in the past decade but have been unable to win a medal - a drought they are hoping to break in Istanbul.
Dragic says this current team compares favorably to the best he's been part of. "In 2009 we had probably the best team ever (finished 4th at FIBA EuroBasket).
"For sure, our young group is up there with the best in the world. It's a different team, a lot of younger guys, which means I am one of the oldest guys. But I feel young again playing with this group."
With a nice blend of youth and experience, Slovenia have vaulted into legitimate title contenders but face a tricky Quarter-Final showdown against Kristaps Porzingis' Latvia.
Dragic, of course, is hoping to extend his international career and claim that elusive medal for his beloved country. "It's going to be tough but we are hoping for a podium finish," he says. "That would be a nice way to end things and be great for our country."