I heard an amazing thing Friday night at Philips Arena: The Hawks’ best player got the ball with the game on the line, and some in the crowd groaned and started yelling, “Pass the ball, Joe!”
I’ve never considered Joe Johnson a selfish player. I’ve noted many times how well he and Mike Bibby play off one another. But things are changing, and Bibby isn’t on the floor as much. (He worked nine minutes and made one basket in Friday’s victory over the Celtics.) More and more it’s Johnson and Jamal Crawford paired at game’s end, and there are times — against Oklahoma City on MLK Day, against the Celtics over the weekend — when Johnson ducks his head and goes one-on-five.
It didn’t work against the Thunder. Johnson took eight of the Hawks’ 23 fourth-quarter shots; he missed five of the eight. (He had one assist — it went, naturally, to Bibby.) The Hawks lost. Against the Celtics he took nine of the Hawks’ 19 fourth-quarter shots; he made seven of the nine. The Hawks won.
When in doubt — most NBA games are in doubt — the Hawks revert to Iso-Joe. Against the Celtics it made sense: Ray Allen cannot guard Johnson, and Paul Pierce doesn’t do much better. And when Joe’s hitting the end justifies the means. But Joe doesn’t hit them all, and the day is long past when he was the only Hawk capable of scoring.
Al Horford just made the All-Star team. Josh Smith should have made the All-Star team. Crawford could have made the All-Star team. Trouble is, when Johnson goes into his back-’em-in-and-shoot-the-turnaround routine he’s not apt to see anyone else. (Unless it’s Bibby. He sees Bibby. But Bibby didn’t play in the fourth quarter against Boston.)
It’s weird, though. Even as the Hawks are becoming a fleshed-out team, Johnson is shooting slightly more. He’s averaging 18.4 shots, up from 18.0 last season. He’s playing two fewer minutes per game and averaging one fewer assist — but he’s shooting more. This isn’t necessarily a good thing.
In the Hawks’ emphatic first half against the Celtics, Johnson made one basket. (Took eight shots, though.) It didn’t matter because the ball was moving. (Ten assists on 20 first-half hoops.) In the fourth quarter the Hawks made 11 baskets and had one assist. (Josh Smith made it.) Put simply, Joe stopped the ball. He sealed the game by making seven fourth-quarter hoops, but what if he’d made only four?
Understand: The Iso-Joe stuff isn’t a matter of Joe calling his own plays. Mike Woodson is trying to exploit matchups, and against the Celtics it worked. But with all the players the Hawks have now, Iso-Joe seems as cutting-edge as the Betamax. It’s a throwback to the days when this team had nowhere else to turn. It has options now.
There will be times when the new Hawks still need Joe Johnson to win them a game. They no longer need him to win every game. They’ll require something more than the old fallback to get them to the Eastern Conference finals.