First Taste Of Playoffs All Wesley Johnson Imagined
LOS ANGELES - Austin Rivers knew what Wesley Johnson was going through.
After five NBA seasons, Johnson finally found himself on a team bound for the postseason for the first time, an experience Rivers got to go through for the first time last year.
“I was extremely nervous – not scared nervous, just nervous because you’ve never played at that level of intensity before,” Rivers recalled.
When Johnson first checked into the game at the 4:09 mark in the first quarter, in between two Blake Griffin free throws, Rivers could tell Johnson felt the same way.
Or, at least he thought.
It’s tough to tell how the mild-mannered and easygoing forward is feeling. His facial expression rarely changes, save for a few grins on the court.
“I don’t know if Wes is happy or sad,” Rivers said. “Wes would be a great card player, poker player. You can tell when he’s happy about something, he’ll smile. But when he’s mad, you don’t know. I’ll ask, ‘Is something wrong,’ and even then he’ll be like, ‘Nah, I’m good.’ You just don’t know.”
On Sunday, whether his countenance showed it or not, it was all anxious giddiness inside.
Johnson talked to teammates and got advice before the end of the regular season about how the environment changes. After all, he’s the only player on the Clippers other than rookie Branden Dawson without any postseason experience.
“Everybody’s telling me it’s a different atmosphere, a different feel,” Johnson said. “The intensity rises.”
That excited Johnson, who couldn’t help but get a grin on his face while sitting at his locker in Phoenix on the last day of the regular season, knowing what was ahead.
Johnson put up numbers in two years in Minnesota, another year in Phoenix and two years with the Lakers, but never saw what it was like to play past 82 regular season games. He had waited longer than Rivers had for his first taste of the playoffs, and even the road to get there this year had its tolls.
He played with plantar fasciitis in both feet toward the end of the season, forcing him to switch out orthotics and try different methods to get out on the court. He said the beginning of games is typically the toughest as he tries to warm up, and he hopes that the breaks between games in the postseason will lessen the load on his feet.
Johnson wasn’t going to miss his first chance to play in the playoffs, so after getting a couple games off to rest late in the year, he returned for the final three games of the regular season for a final tune-up as part of a bench unit that’s lessened the load on the Clippers’ starters this season.
“There’s been a lot of guys that have stepped up and taken on bigger roles,” Griffin said. “I’m really proud of Wes, the way he’s stuck with it all year dealing with plantar fasciitis and dealing with different stuff here and there.”
It was all a buildup for Sunday night.
When Johnson finally recorded his first career playoff minutes in Game 1, he did his best to keep composed, though he committed a foul about 13 seconds into the game.
After that, he settled down.
“That’s how I felt last year, I was extremely nervous,” Rivers said. “But once you start playing, you’re good.”
Johnson played nine minutes, dishing out a quick assist before finishing with two rebounds, a block and a 3-pointer in the corner by the end of the night.
“It was definitely what I thought it was going to be,” Johnson said. “When I was out there, I was really just trying to stick to the same rotations. But after I hit the first shot, everything went away, and I was all right.”
Unfortunately for Johnson, that 3-point shot didn’t come until less than a minute remained in the game. Ideally for Johnson, the momentum from that shot, which calmed the nerves, carries over to Wednesday’s Game 2.
“He hit that last three of the game, and he was like, ‘OK, I’m good now,’ Rivers said. “That was all he needed.”