Who would have thought that going into the 2013-14 campaign?
During the regular season, Johnson had a true shooting percentage of 56.4 -- the highest of his career. His Player Efficiency Rating rose from 14.1 in his first season with the Nets to 15.5 in his second. Johnson hit two game-winning buzzer-beaters and went 3-for-4 in the final seconds of games in which Brooklyn was tied or behind by three or fewer points. On Dec. 16, he scored 29 third-quarter points and hit a career-best 10 3-pointers against the Philadelphia 76ers.
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In the playoffs, Johnson shot 53.3 percent from the field, 41.5 percent from 3-point range and 83.7 percent from the free throw line. He averaged 39.2 minutes and 21.2 points. And the Nets were a much better team with him on the floor: 109.0 offensive/106.9 defensive ratings vs. 105.0 offensive/119.0 defensive ratings.
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat, Johnson went toe-to-toe with LeBron James, scoring 24 of his playoff-high 34 points in the second half.
The Nets were eliminated that night, but Johnson had every reason to be proud of his season.
He bought in from the beginning and was a model of consistency throughout, picking up the nickname “Joe Jesus” for his late-game heroics in the process, because, as Kevin Garnett so eloquently put it, “He might not always be there when you call on him, but he’s always there when you need him.”
“The first couple of months of the season we were all kind of learning one another,” Johnson said last Thursday. “Obviously, injuries starting to happen and for whatever reason in the new year, we were able to kind of put some things together. I think for me personally, I felt I really had to step up, especially in games with Deron [Williams] and Brook [Lopez out], and be a little more assertive on both ends of the court, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Johnson became a more polished player, thriving in the post. His ability to read a double-team was simply top-notch. At 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds, Johnson was a mismatch for any smaller guard trying to defend him. And the Nets ran much of their offense through the 32-year-old swingman.
“He’s an unbelievable player,” James said of Johnson during the playoffs. “He plays at his own tempo. You can’t speed him up. And he’s a big body too, so he can get physical with us as well.”
The Nets were 10-21 when Johnson hit a fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to beat the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Jan. 2. They finished 44-38.
It was right before the postseason began that Nets coach Jason Kidd, who usually says nothing to the media, offered this gem about Johnson:
“I think that's just Joe. You go back to the Phoenix game [on Nov. 15]. He drove the length of the court, made the floater [to win the game at the buzzer],” Kidd said then. "There was no emotion. It was just: The game is over. Let's go get ready to play the Clippers.
“Most guys like to a dance, most guys like to celebrate, but Joe just moves on. When Joe made that shot, it was just everybody expected him to make it. And he delivered. And he loves that stage, and that's something we can lean on in the playoffs. I think it kinda kick-started our season.”
Could the Nets become Johnson’s team in 2014-15? Perhaps.
Williams and Lopez could be traded over the summer. The futures of Paul Pierce and Garnett in Brooklyn are unclear. Johnson said the possibility of the duo leaving would be “disappointing.”
Things have been a lot different for Johnson since the Nets acquired him in a blockbuster trade with the Atlanta Hawks. As we’ve said before, he was worth every penny of his $21.5 million salary in 2013-14. Brooklyn doesn’t have the season it did without him.
“The New York market is obviously bigger than any other market I ever played in,” Johnson said. “I was probably able to put my talents on display a little more, be recognized a little more. But it wasn’t really about that for me. I love the game of basketball, and I do whatever I can to try and help the team win. Sometimes putting forth my best effort may not be good enough, but I gave it everything I had.”