SALT LAKE CITY — This playoff series between the Jazz and Clippers is officially a freak show. We saw a player hurt his knee just 11 seconds in. Then we had another damage his big toe, and yet another get food poisoning. Freaky stuff. All three missed various amount of time on the court through four games, with Blake Griffin ruled out for the rest of the playoffs. Coming up in Game 5 is the bearded lady, a sword swallower and Muggsy Bogues.
And you know what was really, really strangest of all? A guy who’s about to turn 36 turned back the clock — they used hourglasses when he was a youngster — and went absolutely nutty to tie this series at two apiece.
Although, truth be told, nobody is truly surprised by Joe Johnson at this late stage. When he’s 50, he’ll be in a gym somewhere, going iso on some poor lunchtime banker, swishing shots and yelling “next.” Understand that Johnson is directly responsible for both Jazz wins, taking the opener on a gentle jumper, then Sunday by dropping 28 points and repeatedly coming up money in the fourth in the 105-98 win.
Johnson breathed life into the Jazz after they lost leading scorer Gordon Hayward to food poisoning nine minutes into Game 4. Hayward was sweating bullets all day after consuming bad food the night before, taking IV fluids and doing anything to stop feeling woozy. Just 48 hours earlier he scored 40 points. This time, he couldn’t see straight and could barely walk straight into the locker room before halftime.
“We put him in a dark room, put a towel over his head and that’s it,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder.
Lucky for the Jazz, they had the good sense to chase Johnson last summer for situations such as this.
He’d just finished playing for his fourth team in 15 years and while still a productive player, was far removed from being a seven-time All-Star at least on a consistent basis. Johnson was first deemed too pricey for the rebuilding Nets and then stayed in Miami for only one season, hitting free agency. LeBron James wanted him in Cleveland. Doc Rivers tried to get him for the Clippers. Searching for new adventures, his instinct led him to Utah, where the Jazz had a crying need for a stable veteran who could help as they advanced to the next stage, as a playoff team.
“We’re luck to have him,” said Snyder.
Johnson was the headliner in Atlanta, where he spent his prime, and a designated savior in Brooklyn, where he brought respectability to a franchise that moved from New Jersey. Always quietly effective, Johnson is a player’s player, someone who carries lots of respect within league circles but because of his lack of flash and low-key demeanor never resonated much among the masses. Along the way, he collected All-Star appearances and cash, but not much else.
Coming to the Jazz was a calling for Johnson. The money, at this stage, wasn’t bad — two years, $22 million — yet the developing Jazz valued him for his talent and particularly his experience, something they only had in short supply.
Johnson was pressed into starting in the season opener after an injury to Hayward and pumped in 29 points in 31 minutes, a hint that Utah made a wise choice. For the year, Johnson shot 41 percent from deep, gave quality minutes off the bench and proved pivotal in helping Utah reach the playoffs. With other players his age or younger choosing to “rest,” Johnson played 79 games, a testament to his conditioning and reliability.
In the playoffs, he’s averaging 34 minutes and nearly 20 points, coming up big late in both wins. On Sunday Johnson had 13 points in the fourth quarter and assisted on three others in the final few minutes to help overturn an 87-80 Clippers lead.
“I remember the last game, (Chris Paul) really putting his stamp on the game towards the end,” he said. “I wanted us to return the favor. I knew we had to get it done some way, some how.”
Johnson was so dangerous he forced the Clippers to ditch the gameplan and start doubling on him. That’s a true sign of respect, one given to only a select few in the NBA, none with Johnson’s age. Which makes it even more, well, freakish. Jamal Crawford, who at 37 is another member of the Senior Set, and was a former teammate of Johnson’s in Atlanta, knows exactly why Johnson has lasted this long.
“His game wasn’t built on athleticism,” said Crawford. “He brings patience and a high IQ. He knows how to make reads.”
This is true. Johnson has long been a scoring tactician, using his body to back his man down in the post, perfecting the lost art of the mid-range jumper and stretching the defense for threes when the defense gives him ample room.
“He’s so sure with the ball,” said Snyder. “He has the strength to get spots on the floor. But how he takes us to a unique place is he’s such a willing passer.”
Game 4 was such a transitional one for the Jazz. In addition to virtually being without Hayward, they welcomed back Rudy Gobert from a hyperextended knee that caused him to miss all but the first few seconds of Game 1. Gobert was surprisingly nimble — winning the opening tap over DeAndre Jordan was a dead giveaway that he was OK — and gave Utah what it missed: An interior presence on both ends and rebounding. Snyder kept Gobert’s minutes tight, giving him only 23, which he was able to do because backup Derrick Favors supplied 17 points with six rebounds. Any fears that Gobert was being rushed back were quickly dismissed by all parties involved in the decision to play him.
“Fortunately, we were all on the same page,” said Snyder. “It’s hard to even describe what he means to our team. He’s a unique player.”
Wit his length and wingspan and improving footwork, all of which helped him to have a breakout season, Gobert had 15 points and 13 rebounds and the Jazz are suddenly feeling whole again. With two days to recover, Hayward will be fit by Game 5 and meanwhile, the Clippers will play their second game without Blake Griffin.
The Clippers still hold home court advantage, if that means anything, and still bring Paul, easily the best player in this series (but who was forced by the Jazz to surrender the ball deep in the fourth quarter a few times too often). At some point, they’ll probably get something from JJ Redick, who’s shooting just over 20 percent on threes and averaging six points. Without Griffin, their playoff lives might depend on that.
“It’s a series,” said Rivers.
And a strange one at that.
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