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Heat stumble onto formula for success with Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic

ATLANTA -- Considering the frustrations the Miami Heat have already faced this season, it would be understandable if Dwyane Wade occasionally bit his tongue to avoid saying something he'd regret.

But Wade wasn't speaking in idioms as he addressed reporters in hushed tones Monday night from the visitors' locker room in Atlanta. The Heat's veteran star had literally bitten his tongue a few nights earlier during a loss at Indiana.

So it was swollen.

Sitting two seats to Wade's left was Heat point guard Goran Dragic, who had some oral issues of his own after having part of a front tooth knocked out during Monday's 100-88 victory over the Hawks. In a painful sort of way, both ailments are sort of fitting for Wade and Dragic -- the catalysts who have spent the first quarter of the season passive-aggressively wrestling over control of Miami's offense.

Both will wake up Tuesday with sore mouths. But that's OK. Because at this point in the season, what they say is far less significant than what they show on the basketball court. For all of the flashes of defensive dominance Hassan Whiteside has shown, and despite the double-doubles Chris Bosh is steadily amassing in his comeback season, the Heat are only going as far as Wade and Dragic take them.

That much was clearly evident over a span of about 30 hours, when the Heat (14-9) strung together a thrilling comeback victory at home against Memphis and followed it up with arguably their most balanced effort of the season in Monday's victory in Atlanta. A day after Wade scored eight of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, including the game-winning jumper to beat the Grizzlies, Dragic steered Miami with 12 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals against the Hawks.

On Sunday, it was Dragic who struggled offensively and shot 3-of-14 with five turnovers before Wade took over to rally the Heat from a huge hole in the final minutes. But Monday, Wade was the one largely out of rhythm on the way to missing 13 of his 16 shots and finishing with seven points as Dragic pushed the pace and boosted the offense.

Wade and Dragic may never be an ideal fit in the Heat's backcourt, but they're starting to show some convincing signs that they can co-exist. After Monday's game, Wade quickly dismissed the notion that the Heat's supporting cast reciprocated the favor of bailing him out of a tough night after he had done the same to lift the team in Sunday's comeback.

"They weren't covering for me," Wade said. "They were doing their jobs. That's what we do on this team. We all have a job. Everybody is doing something. Some have more opportunities than others."

With Bosh posting 24 points and 10 rebounds, Whiteside adding 13 rebounds and three blocks, Luol Deng chipping in 18 points and nine boards, and Gerald Green scoring 20 off the bench Monday, the Heat have shown they're capable of beating anyone in the East. But it was only a week ago when they were in the midst of a meltdown after having lost three straight by double-figure margins to Washington, Charlotte and Indiana.

Miami has struggled with an identity crisis throughout the season. The Heat acquired Dragic last February after giving up two future first-round picks, then signed him to a five-year, $85 million contract as a free agent last summer. The intention was to allow the former All-NBA playmaker to speed up the offense and create easy scoring opportunities for an offense that ranks among the slowest and least productive in the league.

The problem is that Wade, the three-time champion and face of the franchise, is at a stage in his career in which his strength is his ability to post up opposing guards and use footwork, leverage and veteran savvy to attack and break down defenses.

In other words, Dragic wants to get out and run whereas Wade wants to methodically dissect. Neither player intends to step in the other's way. But both endure challenges adjusting to the other's style. Some nights, like Sunday, Wade proves he's still one of the best closers in the league when he takes over the offense. And other nights, like Monday, Dragic shows the potential the Heat have when they defend, get into transition and convert stops into early scoring opportunities on the other end.

There will always be elements of an either-or scenario in Miami's offense.

But it doesn't have to be a tug of war between Wade and Dragic.

The Heat have scored 100 points in consecutive games for the first time this season. They doubled their fastbreak opportunities from Sunday to Monday with 12 points on nine field goal attempts in Atlanta.

"I always say if the defense is playing well, then we can run," Dragic said. "And if we run, then we can get some easy layups. And then, we put some pressure off our shoulders. That's the first key, is to defend, and then try to run and score some easy baskets."

On Sunday, Wade admitted that he yelled and used profanity toward Dragic to force him to remain as aggressive when he's not handling the basketball and is put in spots to be a scorer. A day later, Wade seemed comfortable allowing Dragic to dictate the flow of the offense and tried to pick his spots.

"It's very important to get Goran going," Bosh said. "We just knew that the effort had to be more. We just had to give more, and it's going to continue to have to be like that. It's important to set the pace, set the tone, play hard and just see what happens."

The Heat still have plenty to figure out about themselves, what works and what doesn't. But they seemed to stumble onto a formula for success, which was revealed in their wins over Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Atlanta. Eventually, there will be times when they need Wade's heavy lifting as the game slows down. But their priority, coach Erik Spoelstra said, is to attack early with Dragic when possible.

"If we're going to commit to being a physical defensive team, we want to get some easier opportunities off that," Spoelstra said. "It might be some three-on-three opportunities on the other end. It might be situations where we flow into it, where you get the defense on their heels so we don't have to face everybody's halfcourt defense, where we're scouted and people know what we're trying to get to."

It remains a work in painful progress.

But there is progress.