There is a tendency in pro sports to measure pro athletes by the number of digits in their paychecks. It follows that expectations of what Joe Johnson is supposed to be reside somewhere just south of Zeus-ian.
So let’s start with this: Yes, Johnson makes a lot of money. He will continue to make a lot of money. He probably has an ATM in his pantry, just to the left of the case of Beluga caviar.
He is the only person in Atlanta who this week will drive past that billboard that reads, “Mega Millions: $356 million” and think, “You know, I just don’t know if I want to fill out all of that paper work for another direct deposit account.”
But in what is turning into a rather remarkable Hawks’ season, Johnson has been far more than a dollar sign with ears lately. The guy known for 2-ton-W-2, with too few big moments and too few big games, has been a relative wonder on the court.
Johnson scored 18 points in a perfect eight-for-eight first quarter Sunday night against Utah. Then the legs went dead, or so we thought. On a night when the Hawks continued to amaze — winning a four-overtime game on the third night of a back-to-back-to-oh-my-back — Johnson provided the most jaw-dropping of moments.
He scored eight points in the fourth overtime. He did not take a rest in any of the OTs. He finished the night with 37 points. He played 55 minutes, 23 seconds of playing time, bringing his three-night total to 126 miutes. There might’ve been a five-mile swim in there, too, but nobody can remember. The Hawks won 139-133 win over the Jazz at Philips Arena and, with this latest spasm, are now 10 games over .500 (30-20).
Zaza Pachulia cracked later that players were dragging so much, “It looked like a 40-and-over game” down the stretch.
Coach Larry Drew said, “I know they were out of gas because I was out of gas.” And he was a suit.
The ultimate survivor was Johnson — again.
Like many players coming out of the lockout, Johnson started the season slow. Like many in this hellish condensed schedule, he had to sit out games (six) with an injury (knee). Unlike many, he has emerged of late a different player. In 11 games since returning from knee tendinitis, Johnson has averaged 24.5 points on 50-percent shooting. Compare that to his scoring averages (16.3, 19.8, 14.5) and field goal percentages (43.6, 43.6, 39.3) in December, January and February, respectively.
Josh Smith had been this team’s best player this season, particularly since Al Horford was lost for the year. But Johnson now is doing something he has been criticized so often for not doing – carrying his team when it’s needed most.
“When we lost Al, [Johnson and Smith] had to elevate their games for us to still win at a high level,” coach Larry Drew said. “The other guys could kind of piggyback on them. I know they felt a little bit of pressure, that they had to take on more of a burden.”
Johnson conceded Sunday what Drew suspected – that his left knee started bothering him long before he went to the bench in late February. He said the pain began a month earlier, less than 20 games into the season. “But it was in and out,” he said. So he kept playing.
He missed six games in a seven-game stretch, including the All-Star break, a span of over two weeks. That benefited him in more ways than just rest. “It gives you a different perspective on the bench, a different view,” he said. “You’re able to see things that you can be better at than when you’re on the court. I could see where the double teams were. I just tried to come out and be more efficient.”
He was more than that down the stretch. It was Johnson who hit a three-point shot with seven seconds left in the second overtime to extend the game (again). Ultimately, Drew knew who would decide his team’s fate.
“We were running every option through Joe,” he said.
By Jeff Schultz