“I never look at it like that. I’m a guy who loves to hoop. Me and my son, he’s 15 years old, we’re in the gym almost every day working,” Johnson said. “So that’s never my thought process. Even though I’m not playing professionally, I still get a chance to compete.”
The 40-year-old Johnson’s latest opportunity is with the U.S. national team in World Cup qualifying, and he gave the Americans a lift Thursday night, scoring 18 points in a 93-76 win over Puerto Rico. The U.S. overcame a 10-point first-half deficit.
The Americans (2-1) only need to avoid finishing last in their four-team group to advance to the next round of qualifying, and they look eminently capable of clearing that bar despite the absence of NBA players. Johnson — a seven-time All-Star who briefly returned to the NBA and played in one game for the Boston Celtics in December — is the only big name on the current U.S. roster. Most of the players came from the G League.
Johnson was the only player over 30 on the U.S. roster.
“He is as professional a player and person as I’ve ever been around,” coach Jim Boylen said. “When you only have five days to prepare, you don’t have time to waste steps, so you need that. He’s got the experience, and he’s got great spirit about him. When you lead with humility, guys will follow you.”
The Puerto Ricans (1-2), who seemed to have most of the small crowd on their side, led 32-22 in the second quarter after a layup by Ismael Romero, but the U.S. fought its way back. The Americans trailed 44-42 at halftime, then dominated the third quarter.
Jared Harper’s 3-pointer gave the U.S. a 71-58 lead, and then a steal and dunk by Jordan Bell pushed the lead to 15.
The Americans will face Mexico on Sunday. The U.S. lost to Mexico 97-88 in November.
The other U.S. victory was 95-90 over Cuba. This was a much more emphatic win. Matt Ryan of the Grand Rapids Gold scored 15 points, and Justin Wright-Foreman of the Birmingham Squadron added 13.
Johnson shot 7-for-11 from the field and ended up playing 22:30.
“My game isn’t predicated on athleticism. Basically, it’s reads for me — just knowing how to play the game. I think at my age, if you can just still get up and down the floor with no problems man, your game is your game,” Johnson said. “Outthinking these guys is the way I play, and I play the right way. I play winning basketball.”
Javier Mojica led Puerto Rico with 18 points.
“The second half, when we go back in the game, they start very hot, making 3s,” Puerto Rico coach Nelson Colon said. “We start sloppy, flat, without energy.”
The World Cup takes place next year from Aug. 25-Sept. 10 in Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines. Teams can qualify directly from the World Cup for the 2024 Olympics.