PORTLAND, Ore. -- The matchup, on paper at least, between the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Wesley Johnson and the 6-11, 240-pound three-time All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge seemed as one-sided as the Portland Trail Blazers putting their 23-7 home record and five-game win streak on the line against the Los Angeles Lakers’ 10-21 road mark on Monday night.
But there Johnson was with 7.1 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Lakers trailing 106-105. There he was standing some 40 feet from the basket out at the Blazers’ pinwheel logo near center court -- ready to show with his speed, quickness and athleticism in one blur of a play why all of it can actually be a beneficial roster decision for Los Angeles.
Johnson took two slow steps toward the 3-point line. As soon as he saw Kent Bazemore receive the ball from the referee on the sidelines and get ready to inbound it, Johnson turned on the turbo jets to run around Aldridge, who was positioned between him and the basket.
Even though Johnson had the first step (thanks to a nice back screen by Jordan Farmar) he still was giving up four inches in height to Aldridge, who was closing quickly. That’s where his 37-inch vertical jumping abilities (as opposed to Aldridge’s 30-inch vert) came into play.
In the blink of an eye, Johnson was catching Bazemore’s lob pass at the rim for the winning layup.
Not only was it a victory for the down-on-their-luck Lakers, their second straight at that, it was a win for coach Mike D’Antoni, who is convinced that Lakers’ best chance to compete is by implementing his small ball (or “skilled ball,” as he prefers to call it) approach to the game.
“I know there’s some controversy out there and you guys [the media] have y’all’s opinion, but I don’t think they’re right and I think Wesley is doing an unbelievable job of guarding and he can run the floor,” D’Antoni said. “Just watch how many times he runs the floor. It opens it up for everybody. And when you do that, it’s easier to play the game.”
Things looked easy for Johnson out there, as he filled up the stat sheet with 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting (while Aldridge needed 19 shots to get his 21 points), seven rebounds (compared to six for Aldridge), four assists, two steals and two blocks.
“The object is to really just to get him uncomfortable,” said Johnson, who had the same challenge against Marc Gasol and David West last week and will have to try it again against Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin this week. “Get out and run and just tire him down, so the shots he usually makes, he might come up short with them because he’s a little winded.”
Beyond Johnson’s personal line, his presence helped the Lakers beat the Blazers 32-9 in fast-break points.
“Just run,” said Johnson.
D’Antoni couldn’t have said it better. He has pleaded with Johnson to just run all season, sometimes growing frustrated when Johnson wouldn’t take advantage of his length and quickness to create havoc.
“Wes is probably one of the fastest guys in the league, baseline to baseline,” said Bazemore, no turtle himself. “Every time we watch film, we always see him sprinting in the middle of the floor [and drawing the defense’s attention] and then we can get anything we want. He’s been very pertinent to our few wins here.”
It was a great way for Johnson to start the month of March, after he had his best month of the season in February, averaging 13.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals per game, while shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 50 percent from the 3-point line. He had some major off-court success to boot by getting engaged over the All-Star break.
Considering what’s at stake, it was really the best month of his career for Johnson, who already has played for three different teams in his four years in the league after being picked No. 4 out of Syracuse by the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Johnson, who is set to become a free agent this summer, is not only playing to impress the Lakers to keep him around, he’s playing to prove he belongs in the league, period.
It’s a similar boat to the one D’Antoni is in. Regardless of how the first three quarters of the season went, now that D’Antoni has enough healthy players to field a competitive team, his objective over the final 22 games is to prove that he can win next season with this group of players and be allowed to finish out his contract in L.A.
What did Blazers coach Terry Stotts, a popular coach of the year candidate, say was the biggest key to the West’s 14th-ranked team in the Lakers beating his third-ranked team in the conference?
“They sustained their style of play from the very beginning,” Stotts said, crediting D’Antoni’s coaching decision. “They got out in transition. They were aggressive in passing lanes.
“They got us on our heels right away.”
Johnson has even made somewhat of a believer out of Pau Gasol, who criticized D’Antoni’s reluctance to pair him with a true big man just last week.
“I think he’s gotten better as the games keep coming,” Gasol said. “He’s got to get used to guarding a bigger guy, a guy that will try to get the ball close to the basket. And I think he’s got a better feel for it now.
“At the same time, I think he’s doing a good job also being more active on the offensive end and making sure those bigs have to run and utilize his strengths toward them.”
Johnson’s spindly frame might not fit the general definition of strength, but he and D’Antoni are proving together there are different ways to exert your will beyond brute force.