Shootaround (April 16): Joe Johnson delivers in clutch for Utah Jazz
Plus, John Wall prepares for Game 1, Tony Parker steps up for Spurs, and much more
No. 1: Say it is so, ‘Iso Joe!’ — On a day of both high excitement and high anxiety, with eight of the NBA’s 16 playoff teams shifting from preparation to performance, as the Indiana Pacers were still sorting out who should or shouldn’t be taking the last shot in a nail-biter, the Utah Jazz were all set. No such uncertainty hung over the Jazz as they pushed downcourt, tied at 95-95, looking in the closing seconds at Staples Center to steal homecourt advantage in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers. Here is an excerpt from ESPN.com writer Kevin Arnovitz’s account on the somewhat overlooked Joe Johnson:
The element of surprise is a razor-sharp weapon, so when LA Clippers guard Chris Paul tied the score with a leaning layup high off the glass with 13 seconds left in regulation, Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder tossed the whiteboard aside.
“We wanted just to get it and go and let this man go to work,” Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said.
The man in question was Joe Marcus Johnson, professional scorer, manufacturer of points, and the NBA player who has drained more buzzer-beaters than any other over the past decade. The conditions for his eighth on Saturday night (no other player has more than four) were favorable. Thanks to a sturdy screen from teammate Joe Ingles, Johnson drew Jamal Crawford, a sharpshooter with a less-than-esteemed defensive reputation and the matchup the Jazz wanted to see.
“I remember Joe Ingles setting a pick, got Jamal Crawford on me, and I just seen the clock going down,” Johnson said. “I knew I had to make a play, I just wanted to get as close as I could to the basket, and it was a good thing it went down.”
During his prime seasons in Atlanta, Johnson earned the nickname “Iso Joe” for his propensity to play one-on-one basketball outside of a set offense. The tag was affixed as somewhat of a backhanded compliment. But Saturday night, after driving through the lane to close range to launch a running layup that went rim-glass-rim before falling through for the 97-95 win, Johnson explained the secret of Iso Ball through the mind of the poor defender opposite him.
“In those moments of the game, guys are not going to help,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of like you’re on an island by yourself and they expect for you to get that stop. Nobody wants their man to score, so I just try to be patient, get to a sweet spot, and make the right play.”
The win was improbable and all the more gratifying because the Jazz played all but 17 seconds without center Rudy Gobert, who suffered a hyperextension of his left knee and a bone bruise on the game’s very first possession.
The blow seemed cruel but almost fateful. The team estimated to have lost more wins this season due to injury watched their defensive anchor and the league leader in blocked shots and defensive real plus-minus crumple to the court
“I think we felt and knew that a lot of people probably were counting us out when he went down,” Johnson said. “But man, we stuck together, fought hard for 48 minutes, we had ups and downs, but at the end of the day we came out with a win.”
* * *
No. 2: Wall grew into Wizards’ vet void — Missing out on a targeted free agent, especially one as touted and talented as Kevin Durant, could have kneecapped the Washington Wizards, if they’’d let it. Something to do (Easter reference ahead) with putting one’s eggs all in one disappointing basket. But when Durant passed on even interviewing with his kinda-sorta-hometown franchise, it turned into a challenge for the Wizards’ court leader, John Wall, to take on some of what the thin man might have handled. As The Vertical’s Michael Lee reports:
John Wall didn’t know what he didn’t need until he didn’t get it. The Washington Wizards never hid their intentions to use their available salary-cap space last summer to acquire a marquee free agent (preferably a slender, 7-foot, former MVP swingman who grew up a subway train ride from the arena). Wall was among those within the organization who wasn’t under any restrictions to publicly lobby for Kevin Durant to make some kind of LeBron James-type homecoming to rescue a wobbly franchise.
Despite the Wizards’ not-so-subtle hirings and personnel decisions, and Wall’s stated dreams of a new Big Three in Washington, Durant didn’t reciprocate that interest. He refused to even grant them a meeting. The move worked out well for Durant, putting him on a team favored to capture the NBA title. But the Wizards’ massive free-agent whiff – which also included Al Horford’s close-call decision to join the Boston Celtics – may have also been a blessing in disguise for Wall.
With no “super vet” – as Wall’s backcourt mate, Bradley Beal, referred to the players at the top of the Wizards’ free-agent wish list – around to lean on, Wall had to assume more personal responsibility for the direction of the franchise.
“It put more pressure on me to be the main guy, to be the guy. I think it made it a role of, ‘OK, you’re the franchise guy,’” Wall told The Vertical. “I went back this year with a mind-set of, ‘This is definitely my team. We have to get it going.’ If I don’t lead these guys, on the court, in practice, show leadership off the court, talking to guys, talking in the locker room, we’re never going to get to where we want to go, never going to get to the promised land. We have an opportunity to do something special.”
While Boston is the No. 1 seed and Cleveland remains the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, the Wizards (49-33) have concluded their greatest regular season in a generation, complete with a division title and home-court advantage in the first round for the first time since 1979. Wall and Beal are temporarily painted on the wall of the local landmark eatery, Ben’s Chili Bowl. Wizards fans are adjusting to the unusual position of rooting for a team expected to win, instead of one that might win with some favorable bounces. And Wall’s confidence is higher than his vertical when it comes to where his team can – and should – go this season.
“I’ve got to get past the second round,” Wall told The Vertical. “I feel like I already should’ve been in the Eastern Conference finals…”
* * *
No. 3: Parker turns back clock — One member of the San Antonio Spurs has gotten most of the acclaim this season for his work at both ends of the floor, considered valuable enough to rank him among the league’s elite and a top candidate for a handful of NBA awards and honors. But it was another Spurs player, a familiar and vital piece of San Antonio title teams more than a decade ago, who stepped up in a most timely fashion in Game 1 Saturday, our man Fran Blinebury notes:
Before Kawhi Leonard came along to earn the adulation, Tony Parker wore the praise, jaunty and stylish, as if it were a French beret. That was 2007, when the Spurs were beating up on LeBron James for the first time in the NBA Finals, winning their third championship as the boyish point guard was singled out as MVP of the series.
Now it’s a decade later and Parker has been called many other things on social media and around town in his 16th professional season, not much of it pleasant.
“I don’t really read, to be honest,” said Parker, who’ll turn 35 next month. “I have two kids. It’s a lot of work. I don’t have time. The only reason I know (of the criticism) is because you (media) guys bring it up. If not for that, I would have no idea because I’m home. I’m up at 6 a.m. with the kids, bringing them to school. I don’t have time for that.”
What Parker found time to do was help keep the Spurs ship from going under when it was taking on water early Saturday night in the playoff opener against the Grizzlies. He was part of multiple pronged defensive attack that shut down Memphis’ Mike Conley and lit the fuse to the San Antonio offense.
From getting right up in Conley’s grill to knocking down a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter it was exactly the kind of performance the Spurs are going to need out of Parker if they are to not only live past the first round, but live up to their 61-win pedigree from the regular season. He put up 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting — 2-for-2 on treys — and dished a couple of assists in what became a 111-82 rout.
In the first playoff series of the post-Tim Duncan Era, a venerable Parker is still the best player the Spurs have at the most critical position on the court. While he no longer has to be a points-first point guard, he must be able to push back at all of the younger, more explosive legs that potentially stand before him in each successive round.
* * *
No. 4: Knicks end season on low note — Even in the giddiest of postseason times, someone has to do the dirty laundry. Once again, that chore belonged to the Knicks, continuing to make the wrong sort of headlines days after most lottery-bound teams have gone into hiding to ponder and plan the 2017-18 season. But Phil Jackson’s post-mortem media session, beyond earning a rebuke from the National Basketball Players Association for the liberties he took in discussing veteran (and NBPA vice president) Carmelo Anthony’s future, prompted a thorough dissection of the once-fabled, now-failing franchise’s many issues, courtesy of The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski:
As the New York Knicks completed perfunctory season-ending meetings with Phil Jackson, league sources say that some players emerged perplexed over the contents of the conversations – which included game-show questions. The Knicks president sent his team into the summer in a similar state as to how they staggered through another lost season: bewilderment.
As Jackson publicly pushed for Carmelo Anthony to waive his no-trade clause and accept a move out of New York on Friday and disparaged coach Jeff Hornacek’s connectivity to the locker room, a bigger issue emerged: Kristaps Porzingis made a stand about the unprofessionalism and routine chaos that has lorded over his work environment.
Porzingis passed on the exit interviews, as ESPN’s Ian Begley first reported, and league sources say Porzingis is planning a long trip back to Latvia that may not include a return to New York until closer to the start of training camp.
Porzingis isn’t alone. Players are privately fuming that they want no part of the organization’s summer slate of triangle offense regimen at the team’s suburban New York practice facility, league sources told The Vertical. In reality, there’s an open rebellion to the triangle – for the offense itself, and by extension, the discord and dysfunction that its implementation has burdened upon everyone.
It isn’t only Jackson’s laborious organizational emails about the triangle – demands of emphasis on schooling players on the reverse pivot move, or the proper passing techniques – but his increasing insistence on the coaching staff and players that the obsolete offense become fully functional for the 2017-18 season.
Inside and outside the Knicks, people see a franchise in disrepair: Jackson’s open war with Anthony, the failed trade for Derrick Rose and the $72 million contract albatross of a broken-down Joakim Noah. Players grumble of a support staff that is far more concerned about creating an illusion of hard work with management and ownership than facilitating winning, a media-relations staff that is suffocating and intrusive, and a management/coaching dynamic that’s made Hornacek look like a puppet.
* * *
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Was it Toronto’s rotten record in first-round openers or what it Milwaukee’s defense that dictated the terms of Game 1 at Air Canada Centre? John Schuhmann of NBA.com analyzes. … As of Saturday night, Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas still was in Boston, deciding how best to cope with the tragic loss that morning of his sister Chyna in a one-car accident back in Washington. … The New York Post went a little more pro-active in trying to suggest remedies for Jackson and the Knicks. … Here are the details of NBPA executive director Michele Roberts’ zinger at Jackson for putting its business with Anthony in the street. … There was no assurance that Utah center Rudy Gobert would be healthy enough to return to the Jazz-Clippers series, but the early report on his knee injury wasn’t as bad as some feared. … The Clippers will be revving up their D League entry sooner than expected.