Joe Johnson Feature Story
Joe Johnson doesn't have to make a lot of noise to make a lot of noise.By Jon Cooper
Atlanta, GA (April 9, 2009) -- These are good times for Joe Johnson.
But don't look for a sign of that from him.
While the NBA's more animated superstars -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal -- can be pretty easily gauged by a simple look at their faces, a random look at Johnson, at any time, reveals nothing.
"He doesn't get rattled easily and even if he is, he doesn't show it," said Hawks Assistant Coach Larry Drew. "Those are the type guys that, as an opponent, leave you scratching your head, like, 'What can we do to break this guy?' Joe can go out and have a bad night -- and through the course of an entire NBA season he's going to have bad nights -- but if you didn't pick up the stat sheet and look at it, you would never know it when you walked into the locker room. He keeps a poker face."
There haven't been a whole lot of bad nights for Johnson, who boasts 46 20-point games, 12 30-point games (including a game-high 30 in Tuesday's crucial 113-105 win at Milwaukee), a 40-point game, and has led or had a share of leading-scorer honors 42 times.
Then, again, he's had that kind of consistent excellence every year since he came to Atlanta prior to the 2005-06 season. So how can anyone make the assertion that these are good times for Johnson?
"Because we're winning games and he's got help from other players like [Mike] Bibby and Marvin [Williams], Flip [Murray] is playing great," said Zaza Pachulia, who signed with Atlanta eight days before the Johnson was traded from Phoenix, and who dresses in the nearest cubicle to him (there is an empty one between them). "He's a winner. If he played the same way but the team was losing he wouldn't be happy. He's happy because the team is doing better."
Case in point: The Hawks' March 29 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at Philips Arena. Johnson had one of his lowest-scoring games of the season (10 points on 4-of-18 shooting), but offered this reaction afterward:
"We had just lost two very important games. We needed to get back on the winning side. This was probably one of our biggest games of the season."
So what if Johnson didn't have one of his biggest scoring games. He found another way to contribute. Kobe's 7-of-19 shooting (1-for-6 from three) was partly attributable to Johnson's defense, an aspect of his game that has been overshadowed by his prolific scoring and clutch play.
Being overshadowed sounds a lot like Joe, himself. Despite playing in three consecutive NBA All-Star Games, and perennially ranking among league leaders in minutes (he's leading this year, averaging 39.9 mpg), and the top 20 in scoring (he's 14th at 21.5 ppg), Johnson has remained a well-kept secret outside of Atlanta -- the nightly double- and sometimes triple-teams from opponents notwithstanding.
"I've had the opportunity in my career to coach some really great players. Joe is of the group," said Drew, who has coached Kobe, Shaq, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and played with Magic Johnson. "He's probably the quietest. He goes about his work a little bit different than a lot of those other guys do. He's more of a technician. You don't see him on the court ranting and raving about calls or what have you. He takes it and just keeps going.
"Maybe because this city has not had success in such a long time, some of that gets overlooked," he added. "I don't think he's gotten the just due that he's deserved. But he's one of those guys, he won't complain about it. He'll just go about his work the way he normally does in a very quiet manner."
Very quietly Johnson has helped revive a foundering franchise. Atlanta lost 56 games the year he arrived. But this season the Hawks have the inside track to the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference (a 3.5-game lead with three games to play), which would mean hosting a first-round playoff series for the first time since 1999. That's important with the Eastern Conference's fourth-best home record (29-10).
The home success has fired up the fan base, and Atlanta is on a pace to draw the most fans in a season in Philips Arena history and the second-best attendance in team history. The Lakers game set a Philips Arena single-game record.
"It's a lot of fun. Everybody's upbeat," said Johnson. "When you're walking through the arena, people see you out, they start talking about playoff basketball and that excites a player. Especially me. It gets my adrenaline rushing. I think it really gives you something to play for, knowing that the fans are really coming out to support us. It helps us all out a lot."
Johnson has learned to appreciate playing meaningful games in March and April, after not experiencing them his first two seasons in Atlanta.
"It's surreal," he said, pausing to reflect. "When I first got here there was nobody in the stands. We had nothing to fight for in March and April. So we were really just playing to get the season over with. Now we've got games that are very significant. We've got long-term goals that we've set and it starts now trying to reach them."
His determination to reach those goals has gotten through to his teammates.
"His game has gone up and up every year," said Pachulia. "The guy never stops his working out. He's a leader. He's an example for the young guys. Sometimes I'm surprised how he's on time. He's playing so much and he's practicing after that. But that's real leadership."
"I haven't been his teammate, so I don't know how he was, but he's a good guy to be around off the court," added Bibby, his backcourt mate and frequent locker room comic foil. "You know how some people are, quiet and then once you feel comfortable around people you start to open up. That's what it feels like."
Even with increased recognition, Johnson insists he hasn't changed.
"I felt at home when I first got here, honestly," he said. "The on-the-court things took a little while to kind of come together but they're starting to look pretty good.
"It's nice to be known, but I'm doing the same things I was doing when I first got here," he added. "Nothing's changed for me."
Except maybe for those extra games in April and possibly May.
"Winning means a lot. It cures a lot," he said. "It makes everybody want to come to work. It makes everybody want to see each other. Losing is totally opposite. You never want to come into the gym. You don't want to see the guy next to you. You don't want to see coach. But it's part of it. You go through phases, you go through changes. You've got to be able to adapt."
Bibby did mention one myth about Johnson he wanted to dispel, however.
"He's not [quiet]," he said with a laugh, while staring across the clubhouse at Johnson. "Everybody always asks me why he doesn't talk. I tell them 'I can't shut him up.'"
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta