By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Apr 2 2009 9:25PM
Maybe Joe Johnson doesn't dunk enough. Maybe he doesn't talk enough trash, star in enough commercials, complain to the officials enough, or provide TV networks with enough highlights.
How else do you explain that Johnson flies under the media radar, despite being the best player on a team on pace to win 47 games and host a playoff series for the first time in 10 years? And why is Johnson's name absent when talking about the free agent class of 2010?
Teammate Mike Bibby is the conspiracy theorist. "It's political," he said about Johnson's lack of exposure. "You know how it goes. That's the way it's been. That's the way it's always going to be. It's political."
"[Johnson] is a quiet guy," offers Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, the Hawks' vice president of basketball and color commentator. "He's got a quiet demeanor. He never complains. He just plays the game like it's supposed to be played. I've got a lot of respect for him, the way he handles himself on the floor."
Wilkins compares the lack of attention Johnson gets to the way he was treated when he was played in Atlanta. But that's probably where the comparison ends. 'Nique was a freak athletically, one of the two or three best dunkers in NBA history.
"Athletic" wouldn't be the first (or second, or third) word you'd use to describe Johnson, even though he's roughly the same height (6-foot-7) and weight (240 pounds) as LeBron James (6-8, 250). In 73 games this season, Johnson's has eight dunks. And even if you've watched every Hawks game, you probably don't remember any of them.
Johnson is skilled. He's a great shooter and ball-handler for someone his size and is one of the league's best-passing shooting guards. He's one of only six players who average at least 20 points, four rebounds and five assists per game.
Of course, putting up numbers will only get you so far when it comes to media exposure. The next step is winning games in late April, May and June. And Johnson is ready to make strides in that area.
With the standings (Atlanta is fourth in the East) and Sunday's win over the Lakers as Exhibits A and B, the Hawks have made a convincing case they've grown up since losing to the Celtics in Game 7 of the first round last season. They've become more consistent, more resilient, and less likely to get rattled in late-game situations.
"Going through that run in the playoffs, it taught us how to play at a level that our guys didn't know how to play at," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson. "And it's been really a nice carryover into this season, because it made us grow a lot faster, I think, than had we not made the playoffs last year."
The most important area of growth has been on the defensive end. Last season, the Hawks were the 18th-best defensive team in the league, allowing 110.3 points per 100 possessions. This season, they're 12th, allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions. That number would be lower had they not lost Josh Smith for 12 games early in the season.
It would also be lower if the Hawks could play as well on the road as they do at home. They're just 14-23 away from Philips Arena after starting off the season 6-0 with wins in New Orleans and Orlando. They've lost their last six road games against teams with winning records, including Tuesday's loss to potential first-round foe Philadelphia.
The road woes frustrate Johnson. "There's no way we should be as good as we are at home and then come on the road and make it tough for ourselves," he said, citing a lack of focus as the main area of concern.
If Atlanta can hold off Philadelphia and Miami and keep the East's fourth spot, it means home-court advantage in the first round. The Hawks are one of the better home teams in the league, having won nine of their last 11 at Philips, with losses to the Spurs and Celtics as the only blemishes during that stretch.
Woodson sees that as progress. "I think when you're building a team and you're talking about trying to win on a high level, you've got to win at home," he said. The Hawks' 29 home wins is already four more than last season's total, and Atlanta still has three more home games left.
Johnson clearly wants his team to take the next step. He made it to the Western Conference Finals in 2005 with the Suns, but missed six postseason games that year with a broken bone in his face.
Back then, he was just a role player. In Atlanta, he's the man.
"I think his drive is a lot more powerful than when he played at Phoenix," Woodson said, "because he's a bigger part of this team than you could ever imagine, in terms of making sure that we stay the course."
"You're going to go through stretches where somebody else is going to pick up the slack," Wilkins said of the load Johnson carries. "But for the most part, 75 or 80 percent of the time, it's been Joe Johnson's show."
And it's time to tune in.
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