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Joe Johnson deserved a better fate

5/15/2014

Joe Johnson played arguably his best game as a Brooklyn Net on Wednesday night.

But despite putting his team on his back in the second half and hitting clutch shot after clutch shot, the 32-year-old swingman’s virtuoso performance was not enough.

Johnson scored 24 of his 2014 playoff-high 34 points after the intermission, but Brooklyn’s go-to scorer was stifled by LeBron James and Ray Allen on his team’s final offensive possession, and the Nets were ousted from the playoffs, collapsing down the stretch and falling to the Miami Heat, 96-94, in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals at AmericanAirlines Arena.

“He had it going,” Deron Williams said of Johnson. “He was carrying us in that fourth quarter, and there was no guy we’d rather want with the ball in his hands late in the game than him.”

With the Nets trailing by two and 4.4 seconds remaining, Shaun Livingston inbounded the ball to Johnson in the corner. Johnson tried to drive toward the rim, but James guarded him closely and Allen came over to help. It appeared as though James and Allen may have fouled Johnson on the play, but he lost the ball at the free-throw line, and time expired.

“It shouldn’t have came down to that, but it was a tough situation,” Johnson said.

His 20-foot step-back jumper gave the Nets a 91-83 lead with 4:49 left, but the Heat scored the next 12 points, and ended the game on a 13-3 run to advance to the conference finals.

“I just tried to get off a shot, but I was in a crowd and whatever happened,” he said. “We just didn’t execute down the stretch, offensively nor defensively.”

Aside from the final play, Johnson said he felt like he was fouled a few times down the stretch. With the Nets ahead 91-88, Johnson was bodied by James as he tried to turn the corner, but the officials swallowed their whistles, and James blocked Johnson’s shot with 1:30 remaining. On the ensuing Miami possession, Johnson bodied James, but this time, a foul was called. James hit two free throws, making it a one-point game.

Johnson then missed a fadeaway 3-pointer at the other end, and Ray Allen drilled a go-ahead 3 -- capitalizing on a defensive miscommunication by Brooklyn -- to give the Heat a 93-91 lead with 32 seconds remaining.

Johnson managed to connect on a corner triple with 11 seconds left to bring the Nets within 95-94. But Johnson, who was nicknamed “Joe Jesus” by Kevin Garnett for his late-game heroics -- which included two game-winning buzzer-beaters in the regular season -- couldn’t save his team from playoff elimination. In the final 4:49, the Nets went 1-for-10 from the field.

“It’s tough because we felt this was obviously a game we should have won and gone back home to Brooklyn,” Johnson said. “This team was assembled to go deep in the playoffs win a championship. We’ve overcome so much adversity throughout the season with injuries. And Brook [Lopez] goes down. But we were still able to kind of keep it afloat, keep fighting and give ourselves a chance.”

Johnson was Brooklyn’s best player during the playoffs, averaging 21.2 points on 53.3 percent shooting -- including 41.5 percent from 3-point range. He scored 17 or more points in 10 of his team’s 12 postseason games.

He hit nine of his first 10 shots in the second half on Wednesday night, scoring 12 points in both the third and fourth quarters.

“I was just being aggressive, man,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t paying attention to the last shot. I was looking forward to the next one. Obviously, I got into a little rhythm, just trying to make plays for us.”

Johnson ended up going 15-for-23 from the field in Game 5 -- 3-for-6 from 3-point range -- but attempted just one free throw. Johnson also attempted one free throw despite taking 24 shots in Game 5 of Brooklyn’s first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, which promoted Nets coach Jason Kidd to go to bat for his veteran. Kidd was fined $25,000 as a result.

In a season filled with trials and tribulations, Johnson served as a constant for his team, buying in from the beginning and quietly leading by example.

Given all he did for the Nets on Wednesday night, Johnson deserved a better fate.