There he was before the playoffs, saying all the right things. He wanted to be viewed as an elite player. He wanted to be known as a difference-maker. He wanted to be the guy who stood out in a postseason series, not blend like flowers on wallpaper.
“Everybody wants to be the guy,” Joe Johnson said last week. “This is the time when the great players step up.”
It’s Game 5 of the NBA playoffs, and we’re still waiting for Joe Johnson to step up. The degree of his greatness remains up for debate.
The Hawks are even in their series with Miami at two wins apiece despite Johnson, not because of him. They’ve received great games from Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia and solid play from Mike Bibby.
But their captain and expected leading scorer has been relatively pedestrian.
Johnson is averaging 13.8 points. He has made only 37.9 percent of his field-goal attempts. He is 2-for-9 from three-point range and 9-for-17 from the free-throw line.
His assist-to-turnover ratio: so tilted the wrong way (10-to-15).
This is not what stars do. Not in the playoffs. Not even in November.
Johnson spent most of practice Tuesday getting treatment for an ankle sprain. When he emerged following a film session, he looked tired and irritated. The irritated part is probably a good thing. That anger-motivation-get-out-of-my-way-I’m-scoring-30-points domino effect would help right about now.
“It’s been a tough series,” he said. “But now that we’ve got home court back, maybe we can taken advantage of it.”
When asked if it has been a tough series for him personally, Johnson said: “Yeah, in some form or fashion. But, you know, we’ll be all right. I’ll pick my play up. I’ll get it together.”
He needs to. Because the current 2-2 count not withstanding, the chance of the Hawks winning this series with Johnson averaging less than 14 points seem slim.
Coach Mike Woodson told our Chris Vivlamore on Tuesday: “The thing is, we’ve been able to sustain with him being mediocre. To me, that’s great.”
The problem is, players who get five-year, $70 million contracts shouldn’t require a safety net, not so often and certainly not in April. Players who get five-year, $70 million contracts do so because they’re supposed to be special.
Team officials often point to Game 4 against Boston in last year’s playoffs, when he scored 35 points, as an almost staple of Johnson’s postseasons. But that night has been more of an aberration than the norm.
In seven playoff games since, Johnson has scored 21, 15, 16, 15, 16, 10 and 14, shooting 37.4 percent (37-of-99). It doesn’t mean he’s a bad player. Fact is, he’s a very good one who sometimes has great games. But elite players are great when it matters most.
Hawks general manager Rick Sund credited Miami’s defense but said Johnson has responded well to the double-teams, saying, “He has swung the ball when he’s needed to, and he’s made some big shots. Great players respond to a defensive scheme, and Joe’s done that.”
As for the lack of scoring, Sund added: “He’ll have a game where things fall his way.”
Johnson also referenced double-teams, off pick-and-rolls and in the post. He said, “I’ve just got to pick my spots a little better. I’ll be all right.”
Saying the right things hasn’t been the problem.