People remember moments. We’ll remember Paul Pierce’s Nets series-saving block in the same breath we’ll remember Damian Lillard’s Trail Blazers series-clinching three-pointer. We’ll remember Kevin Garnett lunging for a loose ball like it held his life force.
But I hope we also remember a moment drawn out for seven games: seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson ruthlessly destroying the Raptors defense, leading the team in scoring throughout the series, including in three of their four wins.
His official salary of under $21.5 million contributes to his league-wide reputation as an overpaid scorer, and the comment about his All-Star appearances often comes with a hint of derision, asserting that he may be the least qualified seven-time All-Star in NBA history. But all the talk about Joe Johnson’s undeserved accolades or bloated contract is off-court stuff, and it distracts from Joe Johnson the basketball player.
Which: Joe Johnson is a damn good basketball player.
I hope we remember Joe Cool burning in the second half of Game 5, to the tune of a game-high 30 points as the Nets nearly erased a 26-point deficit. I hope we remember that Dwane Casey’s guards were so overmatched with Johnson in the post that they actually switched a power forward onto him, and he adjusted his game to keep scoring. I hope we remember Johnson hit 13 points in that crucial Game 7 fourth quarter, keeping the Nets’ season afloat long enough for Pierce’s block to mean something.
I hope we remember that in 139 possessions used (per Synergy), Joe Johnson only turned the ball over 11 times, a ridiculously low number for a ball-dominant player getting double- and triple-teamed throughout a seven-game playoff series.
Johnson scored in an incredible amount of ways: by beating guys off the dribble, posting up smaller guards, curling around screens both on and off the ball, and spotting up for three-pointers. It’s hard to stop a scorer when you don’t know what’s coming, and with Johnson, he can beat you in more ways than nearly anyone:
He was the undisputed MVP of this Nets-Raptors series, averaging 21.6 points in 40.9 minutes per game with shooting field goal percentage of .518, three-point percentage of.391 and free throw percentage of .824. His player efficiency rating of 18.7 would be a playoff career-high.
Johnson scored 12 points per game in the paint this series, shooting an even 70 percent. DeMar DeRozan and John Salmons both struggled to contain him, and he found different ways to bully defenders until he got to his spot.
His reputation comes from his methodical style of play. He isn’t an explosive athlete like Russell Westbrook, or a wiry physical freak like Kevin Durant. He’s not a part of Paul Pierce’s old school or Paul George’s new school of scoring wings. At 6’7″ and a strong 240 pounds, he’s a bulldozer, burrowing his way into the paint both from high catches and post-ups. He’s stubbornly boring, referred to (again, derisively) as “Iso-Joe,” because of his ball-dominant style, but Johnson’s one of the league’s best in one-on-one situations and a willing passer if he sees a double-team. When they did double-team Johnson, he often got the ball out of his hands, triggering Brooklyn’s swing-swing-swing offense until they found an open shooter.
“Just trying to be aggressive,” Johnson said of his style. “Early on I took my time, picked my spots. I thought my teammates did a great job of making plays when I was throwing the ball out of double-teams. Down the stretch I know they weren’t going to double as much, but they gave me a few different looks.”
The Raptors tried to counter Johnson’s strength with size, switching the 6’9″ Patrick Patterson onto him for a stretch in the fourth quarter of Game 7. Once Johnson adjusted, he was able to get around Patterson by isolating him above the three-point line and driving for layups. “With Patterson guarding me, a bigger guy, I just wanted to use my quickness and get around him,” Johnson said.
He did. He got around the bigs and scored over the guards. The Nets are a project approaching $200 million, and Joe Johnson’s contract sits firmly in the middle of that. Take him off this roster, and they’ll lose most of the team’s record-breaking luxury tax burden. But they’ll also lose this series.
(Postscript: He also inspired some of the most hilarious and sacrilegious fan art)