Returning to Phoenix was a reminder for Tyler Johnson that things always don’t work out the way you planned, and you’ve got to keep working through it.
Waived by the Suns midseason last year, Johnson hooked on with the Nets before the season resumed over the summer, and played a significant role for Brooklyn on the NBA Campus. He re-signed with the Nets in November, but had played sparingly over the season’s first 24 games.
That started to change 10 days ago. Johnson has been a steady part of the Brooklyn rotation since, and Tuesday night he scored a season-high 17 points in his first start of the year as the Nets beat the Suns, 128-124.
“You know, obviously I wish things would have ended differently here in Phoenix, you’re right about that,” said Johnson. “But I think being here was a learning experience that things aren’t given. You feel like your career’s going in a trajectory of one way, and then all of a sudden you make one stop, and you find yourself in a situation where you’re like, damn, how the hell did I get here? So for me obviously, coming back, felt good to get a win.”
There’s been plenty of fluidity with Brooklyn’s roster and availability this season — Johnson’s addition to the starting lineup against Phoenix gave the Nets their league-high 20th set of starters of the season and their eighth straight game with a new starting lineup that had not been used this season.
The door opened for Johnson against Philadelphia on Feb. 6, and he’s steadily been rounding into rhythm. Over Brooklyn’s last three games, he’s shooting 12-for-24 from the field and 10-for-20 from 3-point range.
“Without the practice time, it is a little bit tough, but there’s a lot of groups that have been going in the mornings and at the shootaround and playing 3-on-3 and 1-on-1, those games in there, those 3-on-3s and 1-on-1s, they’re full-go,” said Johnson. “So you’re still working on your game. You have to make the best out of the situation, so you find guys like Bruce (Brown), when he got ready, he was doing his thing, Landry (Shamet) came out for maybe a game or two when he was working on his game, comes back and now he’s rejuvenated. (Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot) started in there. Myself, I’ve started in there. (Chris Chiozza), Noah (Vonleh), all those guys are gonna be ready because we have to compete so hard against each other. It’s one of those situations where we’re battling each other, but we have a common goal, and we all root for each other.”
Against Phoenix, Johnson played a season-high 32 minutes and made 5-of-8 3-pointers while grabbing five rebounds. As the Nets closed out a 24-point deficit, his 3-pointer brought Brooklyn within two points, making it a 108-106 game with 6:38 to play.
“Tyler, man, he’s been great,” said Jeff Green. “The last couple games he’s come in and given us great minutes. Tonight, he got his name called, got the start and gave us tremendous minutes, knocked down some big shots, his defense was really good and he’s been playing well. I mean, he’s been working hard to get back on the court after some injuries early on, but he’s looking great and he’s been helping us out these last couple games.”
Green and Johnson were part of a group that started the fourth quarter with Brooklyn trailing by 12, along with Luwawu-Cabarrot, Shamet, and Joe Harris. Brown subbed in as well during the stretch in which the Nets opened up the fourth quarter with an 18-6 run to cut the Phoenix lead to two. James Harden returned with 5:33 to go, and eventually hit the go-ahead 3-pointer as the Nets closed the game on a 12-0 run to seal the comeback win.
“Tyler was great,’ said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “He’s had a great little run here for us and we love his competitiveness guard. He also has been really confident. He's knocking down threes. He's just competitive and plays with high energy. So it gives our group some life and a boost. You know that the second unit was great, they move the ball. The game kind of got junked up with both teams switching, and they were able to kind of instead of it slowing us down, it sped us up in a way we're creating open opportunities for each other. They made shots and they guarded, so they in many respects, took that shift in momentum and exploited it and then set us up for the finale. And James came back, he and Joe came back in, and he made some plays down the stretch.”
Green had 18 for the Nets with eight rebounds off the bench, and Shamet scored 13 in shooting 5-for-9 and 3-for-6 from 3-point range. Over the last seven games, Shamet is averaging 12.3 points and shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range.
Harden called it “the true definition of a team,” the way the Nets pulled off the victory without both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. But it was also a sign of a growing comfort level and impact for Brooklyn beyond its big three. Against Golden State on Saturday, all five Nets starters scored at least 15 points, the first time the franchise had done that since 1999, with Green coming off the bench in double-figures as well. In Monday’s win over Sacramento, seven different Nets scored in double-figures.
“We have a star-studded team so to speak, and for some of those role players that are coming off the bench it's a big change to play in a team like this that has such high-profile players and it can be difficult for their confidence at times,” said Nash. “So the way that they're starting to embrace this and starting to feel confident and comfortable in that role playing in the second unit, the standard that's set and that their meeting has been great. They're all great people. They're all great competitors, they're good players. So just letting them find their comfort zone, and then having success on nights like tonight is really important, I think, for the second unit, for all the role players, and also just for the entirety of our team.”
“Whether we won tonight or lost tonight, it's always going to be a learning experience,” said Harden. “I think we gained something tonight because guys got their confidence. Defensively, we worked on some things that potentially we can work on later in the season or maybe next game. But just building confidence in the entire roster, that way your number is called, you're ready to go. You're ready to contribute. And from Tyler not really playing a lot to playing big minutes tonight to Bruce, Jeff, and down the line from top to bottom. So, it's a chemistry builder for us.”