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When he's healthy, Kevin Johnson is nearly unstoppable
By Jim Brewer

WATCHING KEVIN JOHNSON ON TOP OF HIS GAME is a little like watching a thermometer shatter on a white tile floor. Much like the quicksilver escaping from the glass, KJ is fluid motion - movement scattering in all directions, but actually energy in a most organized form.

And if you've ever tried to capture mercury by pinching it between your thumb and forefinger, you know what NBA point guards must feel like standing at the top of the key waiting for KJ to approach with the ball. He's almost impossible to pick up without a lot of help.

After an injury-riddled 1992-93 campaign, Kevin Johnson is one of the most feared offensive threats in the league once again. With a first step quicker than a Ross Perot "you're not listening!" and a jumper that is becoming more and more accurate further and further from the hoop, the Suns' 6-1 point man can be just plain unstoppable.

But this is not really news to most fans of the NBA. KJ has always had the ability to be unstoppable when healthy.

Ah yes, that dreaded qualifier. Injuries have become KJ's own personal albatross - in the playoffs during his first few years with the Suns, here and there the past couple of seasons and, more acutely, during the 1992-93 regular season. After averaging over 20 points and 10 assists in three of his previous four years (he just missed in 1991-92 with 19.7 ppg), KJ's numbers "dipped" to 16.1 and 7.8 last season.

Johnson played in only 49 regular-season games due to a number of freakish injuries. In fact, he started the year on the injured reserve with a groin strain suffered attempting to pick up 300-pound-plus rookie Oliver Miller in celebration of a successful preseason play. KJ missed 18 of the first 22 recovering from that injury and an additional strained hamstring.

After being kicked in the right calf in a loss at Seattle in February, Johnson missed another seven games with a severe bruise. Then, following a celebrated brawl with the New York Knicks, he was suspended for two games in late March.

Finally, KJ missed five of the last 16 games - the last two due to a knee injury suffered in a post-game victory hug with Charles Barkley following a last-second win at Portland. He also missed the first game of the Suns' playoff series with the Los Angeles Lakers.

All of these mishaps and misfortune might have sunk a lesser player. But KJ showed a new weapon in his arsenal over the last few months of the season and during the Suns' long playoff drive - toughness.

Maybe it began with the Knick-down-drag-out brawl at the America West Arena on March 23, 1993 - where KJ laid out an unsuspecting Doc Rivers with a little taste of New York medicine. After serving his two-game suspension, he returned to average 24.6 points, 9.2 assists and 1.43 steals in his next eight games - while shooting at a .553 (57-for-103) clip from the field. Stats that were outstanding, even for KJ.

After once again battling injuries toward the end of the season, KJ returned to the playoffs to pick up where he left off.

The apex of his postseason performance - an NBA record 62-minute effort in the triple-OT Game 3 of the NBA Finals at Chicago - became a testament to his toughness. KJ played all but the final minute of the classic battle finally won by the Suns 129-121.

"I kept waiting for him to tell me when he got tired," coach Paul Westphal said after the game.

The guard with the lightning first step had proven to the basketball world that, along with speed, he possessed a fair amount of intestinal fortitude, as well. Of course, anyone who drives the lane as KJ does, challenging oak trees with legs to knock him down, obviously never lacked in the guts department.

But even though - "when healthy" - KJ had played as well as anyone in the NBA, the 1992-93 season was termed a disappointing one for the former first-round pick out of the University of California. Yes, his numbers were down, but other aspects of his game were up - especially his defense. Can anyone forget his work on Michael Jordan during that marathon Game 3?

In any case, fairly or not, KJ's name had begun to fall from mention when the discussion turned to the top point guards in the NBA. Well, guess what he's back.

During the first month of the 1993-94 campaign, KJ averaged 23.6 points and 10.1 assists. The toughness he showed last year is manifesting itself in an aggression toward the hoop this season that borders on voluntary rim-slaughter.

"I think Kevin is playing as well as anybody in the league right now," said Cleveland point guard Mark Price after KJ ripped the Cavs for 26 points on November 20. "He seems healthy and anytime he's healthy, he's always been one of the top point guards in the league."

Yes, once again, KJ is healthy and perhaps playing the finest ball of his career. "Kevin's playing great," said teammate Danny Ainge. "I don't know if it's his best - he played great last year in stretches, too, he just wasn't as healthy."

For the first time in three seasons, KJ started the year completely injury-free and, for the first time since the arrival of Charles Barkley, KJ has started to assert himself more consistently on the offensive end.

Yes, Barkley's arrival did have an effect on KJ - how could it not? After years of being the first or second option on offense, Johnson was faced with adjusting his game to include Barkley, who, of course, would almost always be Option 1.

But even though he seemed to struggle initially with this adjustment, like a true pro, he learned from the struggle.

"My role changed significantly last year," KJ said. "The addition of Charles made me a more complete player because he attracts so much attention it allows me to do other things - play defense, hit the open jumper, pick my spots."

So far in 1993-94, his spot has seemed to be anytime he has trotted onto the court. Hitting jumpers, driving past defenders for dunks, penetrating and dishing off to open teammates - Johnson's aggressiveness on offense is a welcome sight to the Suns.

"We want him to score and be aggressive on offense," Westphal said. "With him hitting, it's hard to know which direction we are going to be coming from."

"Kevin's our leader," Ainge said. "When his defense is great and he puts up numbers, he makes it very difficult for other teams to stop us. He's been very aggressive offensively and that makes us better."

While driving the lane is his bread and butter, KJ has been more effective than ever in using the outside jumper to set up his penetration. With healthy legs under him, the jumper has been falling more often than a cow on skates.

"The one thing he has improved a lot is his jump shooting," said Price, a former teammate of Johnson's when KJ was a rookie fighting for playing time in Cleveland. "He's pretty accurate from 15 to 18 feet and that's something he wasn't as good at before. When he's hitting that shot, guys have to play him a little closer and then he can use his quickness. He's got a lot of weapons to use."

Weapons that might be put to good use in a detente-era version of global roundball war - the World Basketball Championships. The new Dream Team II - which includes Price, along with Suns guard Dan Majerle, the Hawks' Dominique Wilkins, Charlotte's Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning and Seattle's Shawn Kemp - will be representing the United States in the 1994 World Basketball Championships in Toronto. Plus, the same team is expected to compete in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Ten of the 12 roster spots have already been filled, with the final two names to be chosen this spring. But, with a knee injury to the Warriors' Tim Hardaway apparently threatening his ability to participate this summer, three spaces seem to be available on the squad. Will KJ be tabbed to take one of those spots?

"I think he should be considered," Price said. "I think he should have been considered in the first place. There's a lot of guys that could be picked for the team that you couldn't go wrong with - Kevin is definitely one of those guys. Who knows, maybe we'll be playing as teammates again this summer."

Although he admits being more than a little bit biased, Westphal believes that if a replacement is needed for Hardaway, KJ is the guy.

"I think he's the best point guard in basketball right now. If I had to pick a point guard, I'm glad we have the one we have."

While hoping he gets the chance to join Dream Team II, Johnson realizes that he only has so much control over the selection process.

"It would certainly be an honor to represent the country in the World Championship and the Olympics, those things are beyond my control," KJ said.

Well, maybe but maybe not.

If KJ continues to play as he has through the first month of the season, the selection committee for the Dream Team would be hard pressed to pass him up.

"It's tough to say this is the best I have seen him play," said Cleveland head coach Mike Fratello after the November 20 game. "Watching him today, you just start to draw up new levels of greatness for him."

And it's new levels of greatness for which Kevin Johnson has now set his sights upon while he's darting and dancing, fighting and flowing from the top of the key to the backboard - rising to new levels like quicksilver in the Arizona sun.

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