DEERFIELD, Ill. -- As his team languished during the second half of Saturday night's home opener against the Pistons, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau desperately searched his bench for a spark, an answer. He found one in the most unlikely of places: At the end of the bench in the form of James Johnson.
The second-year swingman came in late and gave his teammates a big boost, scoring eight points, dishing out four assists and grabbing three steals as well as nailing a clutch three late in the fourth quarter.
The irony that Johnson, a player who many had written off after a disappointing rookie season, was the man who helped get the Bulls back on track in Saturday’s 101-91 comeback win was lost on nobody Sunday afternoon at the Berto Center. Especially when you consider that Thibodeau told Johnson he would not be part of the rotation to start the season and would struggle to find consistent minutes.
"It's hard when the head coach comes up to you and tells you you're not going to be playing that much, because we've got so many good players, different players, at his position." Bulls point guard Derrick Rose said. "He's young and he came out ready, even though he didn't know he was going to play. But he came out there, boosted us up, and gave us a lot of energy to go out there and win that game."
For Johnson, Saturday's performance was just another sign that his hard work has been paying off. He dropped almost 30 pounds in the summer and has spent countless hours in the gym working with assistant coach Adrian Griffin and team ambassador Scottie Pippen on refining his game.
"Opportunity came knocking," Johnson said. "Thibodeau said it would and he just told me to be ready for it. He came and talked to me before the first game and let me know I wasn't in the rotation and to keep working and my opportunity would come. We didn't know when and we didn't know what game, but it happened to be [Saturday] and I just wanted to go out and play as hard as I could."
Neither Johnson or Thibodeau ventured to guess whether the solid performance would land the former Wake Forest star more minutes in the coming weeks, but the fact that Johnson finally played the way everyone knew he was capable of made a lot of his teammates happy. Rose and Joakim Noah were two of the players who spoke to Johnson about keeping his head up while in the midst of an up-and-down career. His teammates know that the 23-year-old is taking the game more seriously this season.
"He came in with a new mentality," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "Just worked his tail off the whole summer. He's always been a great teammate, never pouting on the sidelines, like some guys pout and cry about their minutes, but he's always bringing it in practice and it shows."
Thibodeau can see the difference as well.
"I'm not surprised because he had been practicing well," Thibodeau said. "I thought he prepared himself well, I thought he played very well in the preseason. I think it's difficult to play more than ten guys. He started off, he wasn't in the rotation, but I had every confidence in him that when he was put in he would do a good job, and he did."
After a poor showing at the Vegas Summer League, many wondered if Johnson was ever going to learn how to become a productive NBA player, but Johnson never lost confidence in himself.
"You can't let nobody take your heart from you," Johnson said. "I didn't and I know I'm always going to work hard and nobody's going to tell me different."
With that attitude, if he keeps playing the way he did on Saturday night, it's going to be hard for Thibodeau to keep Johnson out of the lineup. It's a decision that Rose is happy he doesn't have to make.
"I'm glad I'm not the coach, man," Rose said. "You have players like this coming out to ball almost every night, players like [Johnson] make it hard on the coach because you just told the guy he wasn't going to be playing much, but then he comes out and gives you a lot of energy and helps you win ... so it's kind of hard on Tibs."
It's a problem that Thibodeau and the Bulls don't mind having.
Line of the day: Johnson, on having Pippen around to help him at the Berto Center.
"It's Scottie Pippen, man. Any kid would be happy for him to tell him anything. I'm still a kid myself, I'm still learning and to come up with Scottie Pippen, it's not bad."