Brooklyn’s Knight in Shining Armor
USA Today Sports
Before the 2013-14 season began, fans were still reeling in response to the major changes made by the Nets, who brought in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett via trade, had come off a breakout season from Brook Lopez and saw Deron Williams return to form in the final months of 2013. With all of this hype, Joe Johnson became an afterthought despite being labeled as half of one of the league’s best backcourts just 365 days earlier and sending Brooklyn into a frenzy with an array of late-game heroics. It didn’t help that Johnson’s isolation-heavy style didn’t fit in well with the identity the team’s new personnel was expected to craft, but not only did Johnson restructure his game to match a role that would make him much more valuable to the Nets, he’s been Brooklyn’s best player in these Playoffs.
After brief tenures in Boston and Phoenix, Johnson’s meal ticket had become isolation scoring in seven seasons as a member of the Atlanta Hawks. It’s what “earned” him a max contract in 2010 and what the Nets traded for in 2012. His first season in Brooklyn kept the trend alive, with isolations taking up 28% of his plays in the 2013 season per Synergy Sports, leading every other category. Johnson averaged 16.3 points a night on 42.3% shooting from the field, got to the line just 2.2 times a contest and the Nets ranked 27th in assists for every made field goal.
This season, Johnson has cut back on hero ball and become a threatening role player on offense with an expansion of his catch-and-shoot game. Johnson finished with a career-high in three-point attempt rate and accuracy, connecting on 40.1% of his tries. Spot-up looks made up the majority of Johnson’s offense this year, at 21.8% of his plays per Synergy Sports. Isolations took up just 17.7%, a 36.7% decrease from last season.
Aiding Johnson with this transformation was the Nets moving to small ball in the wake of Lopez’s injury mid-season. The Nets moved Shaun Livingston into the starting five after a few failed experiments with Mirza Teletovic replacing Lopez, and from that point on Brooklyn and Johnson both took off. Brooklyn’s backcourt now had two point guards, moving Johnson even further off the ball at the three spot. The Nets went 34-17 since January 2nd, with Johnson scoring at a 57.4% true-shooting clip compared to 54.9% in the 30 games prior. Johnson also had one of his best months of basketball in recent years, averaging 17.4 points per game in March on a smidge under 50% shooting from the field and 44.3% from three.
Enter the Playoffs, where Deron Williams has tallied a below-average PER, Kevin Garnett has been a shell of last season and Paul Pierce has scored over 15 points in just three games. Joe Johnson on the under hand has shot under 50% in just three games while putting up 14.6 attempts a night and in ten games has a true-shooting percentage of 62.4%. The Nets are getting outscored by 23.2 points per 100 possessions when Johnson sits in the postseason and top their opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, by far the widest margin of plus-minus success on the team. Johnson’s been the catalyst for Brooklyn – scoring over 20 PPG in the postseason for the first time since 2008 – most impressively doing it in different ways with each series.
Against Toronto, Johnson had a field day against the Raptor wings in the post. Both DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross were poorly equipped to deal with 6’7” 240-pound constant mismatch, and Johnson took full advantage. With his brute strength advantage and killer floater, Johnson dominated inside, eventually forcing the Raptors to send help on every touch:
Those paint numbers are unreal, and gave little incentive for Johnson to hunt for outside shots when he could score inside so easily. It’s no surprise that he attempted just 3.3 threes a night in 40.9 minutes per in this series.
The Nets would advance to play the Miami Heat, where Johnson has taken a completely antithetical approach to the attack he exhibited on the Raptors, but with similar success. Johnson has attempted 5.7 threes a game against Miami, 17 of Johnson’s 35 total shot attempts in three games coming from downtown. Only one of these three-point tries came off the bounce, the rest were catch-and-shoots that fell at a deadly rate. Johnson is shooting 47.1% from long range in this series (and 57.1% from the field overall,) his sweet spot being the left elbow and corner from which he’s dialed in 12-of-25 attempts.
The Heat will eventually kick their defense up a notch and give Johnson much fewer open looks, at which point he’ll have to turn to his post and dribble drive games some more. As the Toronto series showed, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Joe Johnson, even with the new role he’s assumed this season that called for less of that. Whatever the Nets have asked of him in these Playoffs, Johnson has given them and more.