Good players play great. Great players play great when it matters most. They start rallies. They decide games. They take over when the casual fan starts paying attention and television networks mandate prime time starts.
The Hawks open the playoffs Saturday night against Milwaukee. This needs to be Joe Johnson’s time.
Not just because his play will help determine how far the Hawks go this postseason. Not just because he is nearing free agency and potential bidding teams (including the Hawks) will ask, “What did he do in the playoffs?” But because Johnson needs to prove something – and he’ll be the first to tell you.
“I’m going into these playoffs with a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “Not only do I want to prove I’m one of the best players in the league but that we have one of the best teams in the league. Honestly, I’m really not trying to prove it to anybody but myself. I just want to know that, if necessary, I can put this team on my back and take us as far as we can go.”
This is what a Hawks fan wants to hear. Their best player wants to take over.
Johnson’s postseason results have been mixed. Two years ago, he had a few good games and a few duds. Playoff performances last year also were uneven, though he was plagued by an ankle sprain. Following each postseason, there have been questions about where he fits on the greatness scale. Perception dictates status. Status dictates dollars.
Johnson is aware of this. When asked about the belief that best players need to be the difference-makers in the playoffs, he didn’t hesitate before answering.
“Definitely,” he said. “The postseason is when players are made in this league. That means coming up with that big play or the big shot to put your team over the hump to get a win. The best players step up.
“If we need a key defensive stop or a key basket, I want to be involved. I’ll be doing what it takes to change the game.”
He has done that lately. Johnson has been an All-Star four straight seasons. But most significant of late have been those game-changing moments.
Against Charlotte, he hit a shot at the buzzer to win it. At Milwaukee, he shot only 7 for 22 in regulation but scored seven straight points (nine overall) in the overtime to carry the Hawks to a win. He had 25 in an upset win over the Los Angeles Lakers three weeks ago and 31 against the Bucks last week.
“You can tell he feels energized,” Jamal Crawford said. “Just seeing him this morning before practice, he’s ready for the playoffs. We all are.”
This season at times has seemed like one long Joe Johnson rumor. He’s staying. He’s going. He likes Chicago. He could see himself in New York. LeBron James could see both of them in New York.
Johnson deserves some credit for playing with blinders on. He hasn’t let it affect his play. When he hasn’t played well, it has been because he just hasn’t played well – not because he has been preoccupied with thoughts of his next contract.
When he rejected the Hawks’ offer of a four-year, $60 million extension in September, Johnson prepared himself for what was coming. Questions in every city. Rumors every week. Every athlete says they can handle this, but few do.
“Going into your contract year, a lot of people think you’re going to press,” he said. “But I wasn’t going to do that. I’ve been able to focus on just trying to be successful, and these guys in here have made my job a lot easier.
“Honestly, I do think ab0ut the contract from time to time. I can’t say I don’t. But I’ve been able to take it in stride, just knowing I had to establish myself and prove I was one of the best players in the league.”
It’s that time.
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