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Johnson’s Game-Winning Free Throws Extends His Run As Nets Good Luck Charm
Ok, be honest—who had “James Johnson scoring the winning points” for the Nets in their pool for Tuesday night’s 112-110 barnburner over their crosstown rival Knicks in front of a record crowd at Barclays Center?
I’m not sure anyone would have placed a “James Johnson on the floor for the final offensive possession” prop bet. Yet there he was, popping open at the foul line to receive the outlet pass from double-teamed superstar Kevin Durant before pivoting into a drive to the rim, where he was fouled by Knicks center Mitchell Robinson with 2.2 seconds remaining. Johnson, who entered the contest sporting a horrific 30% free throw percentage, calmly hit both shots and when Knicks guard Evan Fournier missed a half-court desperation heave at the buzzer, the Nets (15-6) escaped with the victory.
Johnson, who signed with Brooklyn in the offseason for the veteran minimum, is looking for his first NBA Championship ring in his lucky 13th NBA season and ninth different uniform. Nets Head Coach Steve Nash likes players who’ve been around and seen a few things, but it’s still a bit of a surprise that Johnson, 34, has been the main beneficiary in terms of the minutes allocated in place of injured wing Joe Harris, a three-point artist.
Johnson is a career 30% three-point shooter, with his one bucket from deep on Tuesday boosting his efficiency this season to a still substandard 27.3%. He often shares the floor with other non-floor spacers such as Bruce Brown, DeAndre’ Bembry, and/or Paul Millsap, which makes Nash’s usage of him counterintuitive.
Yet it’s been working. Johnson has the highest net rating (plus 12.7) of any Nets rotation player, and he hasn’t been running it up in garbage time. Strangely, Tuesday night was just the third time in his 13 appearances this season that the Nets have been outscored with Johnson on the floor.
Despite Johnson’s offensive limitations, it’s clear that Nash trusts him implicitly—though Johnson has been averaging about 24 minutes per game over Brooklyn’s last six games, nearly 11 of those minutes have come in fourth quarters, where he’s gone the distance four times. That included Tuesday’s affair, where Johnson filled up the stat sheet with 5 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, and one block in the final frame.
He also does the little things, like setting excellent screens (though he did get nailed with a moving screen foul on Tuesday), especially off dribble hand-offs, getting deflections, and boxing out on rebounds. He’s one of a few Nets defenders who can ably switch one-through-five, giving Nash the flexibility to use him in big and small lineups. Intangibly, as a black belt in karate, Johnson allows the Nets to emit an air of toughness through his mere presence.
The Nets are 5-1 in this stretch, with the lone loss coming against the red-hot Suns on Saturday. You may not recall because Phoenix led wire-to-wire, often by large margins, but the two Nets runs that got the game within single digits in the second and fourth quarters occurred during Johnson’s 27 minutes, which is how he ended up a plus-14 in the 113-107 defeat.
A few years ago, the Nets rode the good fortune from another forward to make a surge up the standings. Rodions Kurucs was a rookie who started, not a veteran off the bench like Johnson, but it similarly made little sense that Kurucs provided a necessary spark—he wasn’t a great three-point shooter and was turnover prone. But there was no doubt that Kurucs’ energy proved to be infectious while Johnson has been flourishing with more controlled intensity.
With a few tweaks, I actually like this current Nets rotation. Alongside Durant and James Harden, who had a pregame chat with TNT analyst Reggie Miller that must have helped him regain his mojo (34 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists), in Brooklyn’s starting five, LaMarcus Aldridge has settled in at center after replacing the slumping Blake Griffin while Bembry has usurped Brown as the defensive stopper and Mills has been lights out from long range manning the Harris slot. Cam Thomas took another positive step with his performance against the Knicks, scoring 12 points as the sixth man. Brown typically spells Bembry while Johnson gets going when KD goes to the bench after a full first quarter but then gets used as a jack-of-all trades thereafter.
However, I do think it’s time, at least until Nic Claxton is fully ramped up following his undisclosed (non-COVID-19) illness, for Nash to give Griffin another opportunity to play a regular role as Millsap is miscast as a backup five. The two charges Millsap attempted to draw on Knicks drivers but couldn’t stand still for would have been gimme’s for Griffin. As poorly as Griffin was shooting from three (16%), it’s not like Millsap has been helping the Nets offense with floor spacing either--he has missed 12-of-his-last-15 three-point attempts.
The other change is that Nash must soon scratch those Jevon Carter minutes, even before Harris fully recovers from his left ankle surgery in the reported four-to-eight week time frame. I understand why Nash is experimenting with Carter, but mostly bad things happen during his runs.
In other words, Carter has been the anti-Johnson.