When the Brooklyn Nets face the Miami Heat on Tuesday night in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series, the highest-paid player on the court won’t be LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh.
This may surprise you, but Joe Johnson ($21.5 million) makes more than James ($19.1 million), Wade ($18.7 million) and Bosh ($19.1 million).
But so far, the 32-year-old swingman has been worth every penny. And the Nets wouldn’t be in the position they are right now -- with the opportunity to prove that their 4-0 regular-season record against the two-time defending champions wasn’t a fluke -- without him.
With the Nets' season hanging in the balance, Johnson scored 13 of his team-high 26 points in the fourth quarter, leading the Nets to a 104-103 victory over the Toronto Raptors in Game 7 on Sunday afternoon at the Air Canada Centre.
“Joe’s kept us alive this whole series,” Kevin Garnett said of Johnson, who averaged 21.6 points on 51.8 percent shooting -- including 39.1 percent shooting from 3-point range and 82.4 percent shooting from the free throw line -- in the seven-game series against the Raptors.
“When we didn’t have a hope, he gave us light. We’ve gotta give him something, we can’t just leave him out there like that. But, ‘Joe Jesus,’ I told you, cooler than the other side of the pillow, man. He’s one of the best to do it, man. I don’t think he gets his props, but he goes out and he does his job and he does it at a high level.”
Johnson, who logged 45 minutes in Game 7 and shot 11-for-25 from the field, has been a model of consistency for Brooklyn all season, quickly buying into his role and doing it well. Against Toronto, the Nets ran their offense through Johnson. No one on the Raptors could guard him. Johnson abused Toronto in the paint -- and when the Raptors double-teamed him, he made them pay.
At one point, Johnson scored 11 straight points for Brooklyn in the final quarter.
“Just trying to be aggressive,” said Johnson, who was able to use his quickness with the bigger Patrick Patterson guarding him. “Early on, I took my time picking my spots. I thought my teammates did a great job of making plays, and I was throwing the ball out of double-teams, and down the stretch I knew they weren’t going to double as much, but they gave me a few different looks.”
On May 4, 2013, Johnson, hampered by plantar fasciitis, went 2-for-14 from the field in a Game 7 loss to the Chicago Bulls. Exactly a year later, he redeemed himself.
“Uh, you know what? It had nothing to do with last year’s Game 7,” Johnson said. “Obviously this is a totally different team. I understood that in order for us to win, guys like myself and Deron [Williams] had to play well. The fact that they were double-teaming, I knew I could get the ball out of double-teams quick and guys could make plays. We made plays off that down the stretch. I was able to use my quickness to get around my man and make plays for myself and my guys.”
Joe Johnson in Game 7s
Williams, who had an up-and-down series, struggled. Saddled in foul trouble for much of the game, he finished with just 13 points on 3-for-8 shooting and four assists in 32 minutes. He missed a key free throw with 22 seconds left that nearly enabled the Raptors to complete a miraculous comeback from 12 points down. But Paul Pierce saved the Nets with a block right before the buzzer. The celebration was on.
Johnson averaged 19.5 points on 51.7 shooting during the Heat in the regular season.
“We know we can beat them, but it is going to be a lot different from the regular season in the playoffs,” Johnson said. “So we understand that we will definitely have our work cut out for us, and it is going to take a collective team effort.”
Ever since signing a six-year, $119 million contract to stay in Atlanta back in the summer of 2010, Johnson’s megadeal has defined him. Right or wrong, fairly or unfairly -- as if he paid it to himself -- it just has.
But if he keeps this up, all people will remember is Joe Johnson the basketball player. Not Joe Johnson the contract.