For one quarter, I watched Joe Cool catch fire.
It wasn't immediate. The crowd didn't know inherently that they were watching greatness until the magic show was nearly over. It wasn't a match falling into a propane tank; it was a slow burn, one that caught the edge of the net with 9:27 remaining in the third quarter and grew larger and larger, until Barclays Center was a smoldering ruin, melting with every shot attempt Johnson fired into the arena's scented air.
It started innocently enough. Joe Johnson entered the third quarter with only eight points. He'd hit three of seven attempts, an unremarkable number befitting a pedestrian night. At halftime, the Nets were up by ten points against one of the league's worst teams, cruising towards what was sure to be a solid, unspectacular double-digit victory. As one fellow writer said to me during the mid-game break, "no one's going to remember this game."
About an hour later, about 20 of us stand around Joe Johnson's locker, waiting to hear what it feels like to get into a zone that few players in NBA history have ever felt.
Even he couldn't put it into words. "It's just a good feeling," Johnson said, always calm and collected, after the game. "It just feels... you catch the ball with the seams every time and it's like every time it comes out your hands, man, it's going in.
"Can't really explain it."
Can you blame him? How do you explain hitting eight three-pointers in the span of exactly nine minutes against one of the 30 best basketball teams in the world while under the weather with illness? How do you explain 29 points under duress?
"Wait, he had 29 points in the quarter?" Deron Williams gasped after the game. "Oh my God."He did. Johnson hit 10 of 13 shots in the third quarter, including eight of 10 three-pointers, tying an NBA record for most threes in the quarter. He finished with 29 points in the third, four less than the NBA record, and sat the entire fourth quarter despite being just two points shy of the NBA record for most three-pointers in a game.
"I asked him (if he wanted to play the fourth)," head coach Jason Kidd said after the game. "He wanted out. He did his job. I'm not a coach that's going to sit someone when they're hot, he was trying to achieve something. I asked, and he nicely declined and wanted to get some rest."
He began his run with a run-of-the-mill three-pointer from the right wing, and shot more and more ridiculous three-pointers as the quarter progressed, including one from "Park Slope Deep," as Ian Eagle poignantly noted.
But Johnson saved the best for last: drilling a step-back from the corner directly in front of the 76ers bench while drawing a foul on defender James Anderson, completing a four-point play that sent Barclays Center into an frenzy and gave the Nets exactly 100 points as they entered the final frame.
"I got a good look at it," Johnson said of his denouement, a sly, knowing smile creeping across his face. "I got a little separation, got a good look, and let it go."
Someone then mentioned that he had a few heat checks in the quarter. Johnson smiled again. "Yeah, uh..." He trailed off into laughter.
"My teammates kept telling me, 'Man, when you catch it, just shoot it.' And that's what I was doing."
He did. He did it again, and again, and again, in the quarter that has given the Nets fits over two seasons. He scored more points in the third than the 76ers scored in any individual quarter. He set the nets, the Nets, and the arena ablaze, if only for a brief nine-minute stretch.
There aren't many moments when you watch greatness develop, right before your very eyes, only realizing it once it's in full force. Tonight was one of those nights. We watched Joe Johnson make magic, one deliberate flame at a time, turn a game into smoke.