I love this matchup. Even though neither plays at their best position — Johnson is a natural shooting guard that abuses smaller players, while Anthony is an elite forward that’s best when driving around power forwards — unique circumstances with each team have left them meeting in the middle of lineups. Brook Lopez’s season-ending injury has forced the Nets into an oddly successful small-ball lineup, while Knicks coach Mike Woodson’s stubbornness has kept Andrea Bargnani as New York’s starting power forward.
It’s intriguing because both players often play similar roles as the team’s lead scoring option. Anthony in particular is a marvel; he can seemingly pour in baskets from anywhere on the floor, without regard for his defender or shot difficulty, and bruise into the inside for easy shots at the rim. Anthony’s shooting fewer shots from three-point range than last year by a wide margin, but he’s still putting up 4.3 three-point attempts per game and shooting over 39 percent from deep.
Johnson, meanwhile, floats from quarter to quarter between being the team’s lethal spot-up weapon and offensive facilitator. He’s deadly when opponents don’t have to focus on him, keying on Shaun Livingston or Paul Pierce driving to the basket instead while Johnson lurks away from the ball in search of open three-pointers. When he’s the primary option, the team’s offense completely changes; it stagnates, but he often gets a decent shot up within the flow of the offense. That’s the tradeoff with Joe Johnson’s isolations, which we’ve written about: it may not be the best look on the floor, but it’s a look more often than not.
Johnson is an incredible one-on-one player, one of the best in the league, for whatever value that’s worth. In a league that increasingly values team defense and floor spacing, isolation ball’s going the way of the mid-range game (another one of Johnson’s strengths).
But his value as the team’s consistent offensive force and crunch time leader can’t be ignored. Just look at what he did to the Knicks last season, and listen to him explain why he’s so good in those situations:
Johnson’s crunch-time shooting and robotic shot form aside, it’s hard to argue that he has the edge here. Anthony’s nearly impossible to guard with just one defender when the ball’s in his hands, and he knows it; his problem comes when you bring another defender to check him. He’s never been a particularly adept passer for an NBA superstar, but his overall numbers — 26.9 points and 9.0 rebounds in 39.2 minutes per game — are just too good to ignore.