Act Like You Know
Joe Johnson is getting it done in Atlanta.
by Tracy Weissenberg
Perhaps Joe Johnson entered the league 10 years too early. Today’s climate favors a new era of superstars like Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant, who have made their unassuming natures more marketable than ever. Johnson has been like that his whole career, but only now would it be feasible to produce a campaign around it.
After re-signing with the Hawks this offseason, Johnson said he was “glad to be back, glad to be a part of something special here.” In the same interview prior to the season, he said the same thing he has repeated throughout the year: “As long as we believe in each other in this locker room, that’s all that matters.”
Though he’s quiet by nature, Johnson is a big reason why that mentality prevails throughout the locker room. Sometimes, it is what a player isn’t saying that is most effective and I have never heard Johnson single out his teammates or comment on the makeup of the team and any inherent weaknesses in the construction.
If anything, Johnson just plays through it. One recent example is his willingness to chase 6-0 point guard Jameer Nelson around the floor during the first round series against the Magic. While Johnson wasn’t the only defender on Nelson, the Magic’s offensive initiator averaged 13 points on 38 percent shooting, including 23 percent from beyond the arc.
After the clinching Game 6, Johnson spoke about his defense on both Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson, saying, “I just wanted to make it tough, just try to keep a hand in Jameer’s face and not give Jason too many open shots. I think he got a couple early but after that, he didn’t really get any. I just wanted to fight over pick and rolls as much as possible, just try to make it tough on Jameer and obviously with the help of my teammates. I thought we all done a great job.”
During the press conference, Johnson was asked about the possibility of seeing time on Derrick Rose in the Conference Semifinals. “If that’s what I have to do,” he said, “then that’s a challenge I’m willing to take. I definitely believe in myself, especially my defense, and my teammates do as well.”
“We got his back,” Al Horford interjected, before Johnson smiled and added, “If I have to take that challenge, then it’s cool.”
While Johnson scored 7 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter of Game 6, it was his offensive rebound with 10.9 seconds remaining that gave the Hawks a second possession to close the game. “I just wanted to make a play,” he said. “The play was designed for pick and roll with Al and Jamal and we didn’t really come up with what we wanted. But when the ball went up—I think Marv shot the ball—when it went up, I just wanted to crash the glass and somehow get my hand on it and I did.”
While the Hawks are moving on to the second round, they defeated an Orlando team that sank or swam with Dwight Howard. The Hawks were OK with Howard setting records as long as his teammates never found their rhythm. It is comparable to the way many view the Bulls. Despite a cast of valuable complementary players, the Bulls depend on Rose to be both their leading scorer and engine. The Hawks, on the other hand, have several legitimate offensive threats, which can be credited largely to Johnson’s flexibility.
When the Hawks ran iso-heavy sets last season, Johnson had the ball in his hands and the team won 53 games. When Larry Drew became head coach, he instituted a motion offense to promote better ball movement and more versatility. Johnson obliged.
Early in the season, Johnson underwent elbow surgery and was expected to miss four to six weeks. He missed his first game on December 1 and was back December 17. On March 26, he sprained his right thumb against the Nets and went on to average a team-high 41 minutes in the first round against Orlando.
While Johnson is not the only star to play through injuries or sacrifice for his team, few are on the receiving end of the type of scrutiny he garners—especially somebody who rarely says anything to bring about controversy or bad press.
After signing a max extension, it seemed like the prevailing outlook was that Johnson should somehow change his persona to match his contract, instead of considering that his mentality is what makes him valuable.
Even though I knew how he would respond, I asked Johnson if he thinks people understand what he brings as a player—if people pay attention to the way he’s adapted to any offense he’s ever been a part of, never mentions shot attempts or stats and has demonstrated a consistent willingness to take on defensive assignments out of position.
“I don’t know, I don’t care neither,” he said. “I play basketball ’cause I love the game, not for anything else.”