I had a dream about Joe Johnson last night.
It was nothing weird, in so far as dreaming about NBA players can be anything but weird. He was just kind of around, and was pointing things out to me as Game 2 of this series was on. How he was able to do so while simultaneously being on the court was unclear, but maybe we hooked up to study footage after the game. He didn’t provide any incredibly insight or anything, he was just kind of there.
I don’t know what to make of it, but I’m going to use it as an introduction and a way to segue into discussing his game because, wait for it…as much as he was in my dream on Saturday, he was the Raptors’ nightmare earlier that day. Nailed it.
We knew that Joe Johnson was going to be a problem in this series. Joke as we may about his credentials as a seven-time All-Star (I mean, look at this) – he averaged 15.8 points with a 15.5 player efficiency rating, and he unforgivably bumped Kyle Lowry from the team – Johnson is still very good at age 32. He shot 40 percent on threes, 70.5 percent at the rim, 50.2 percent between three and 10 feet and 47.3 percent from 10-to-16 feet. Only in the 16-foot-to-3-point area was Johnson even “mediocre,” shooting 35.9 percent. He shot 48.3 percent on drives, 42.1 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts (40.7 percent on catch-and-shoot threes) and 40.7 percent on pull-ups. He’s decent in isolation, great as a pick-and-roll ball handler, excellent posting up, and effective on the move in screens and hand-offs. There’s very little that Joe Johnson doesn’t do well on the offensive end.
And so, like I said, most identified him as a potential match-up problem. Paul Pierce at the power forward spot forces the most tough decisions on coach Dwane Casey, who has to allow Amir Johnson to check him and risk the loss of help defense (not the biggest deal since Brooklyn shoots within five feet less than any other team, though they have four players in the top-100 for points scored on drives per game) or put a wing on him, going small with a lineup the Raptors don’t thrive with (especially if Jonas Valanciunas is going to play this well, because it means Johnson, one of the team’s best players, is relegated to a smaller role). But it’s Johnson who poses the biggest problem of “how do we guard him,” because DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross and John Salmons all have their flaws defensively. All caveats due about Synergy play classification, but have a look at where Johnson does his damage compared to how Raptors wings defend:
|Play Type||Johnson O-Rank||DeRozan D-Rank||Ross D-Rank||Salmons D-Rank|
Put DeRozan on Johnson and he’ll post him up, using his 25-pound advantage. Put Ross on him and Johnson will work off ball to create spot-up opportunities, leaning on Ross’ relative inexperience and occasional missteps. Put Salmons on him and Johnson can put him in the side pick-and-roll, where Salmons becomes an unfortunate match-up if switched on to Kevin Garnett or Pierce (and, despite the most balanced ranks, Salmons did a poor job on him on Saturday).
There are options, but none are particularly strong. And so Johnson shot 8-of-13 for 24 points on Saturday, adding four assists, getting to the line and boasting a +15 mark in his 44:30 of playing time. Let’s see how he got his.
11:49 – Johnson takes a hand-off from Paul Pierce that acts as a screen, allowing Johnson to cut to the left elbow. Amir Johnson had slid over to help on the drive, letting Johnson find Pierce for an open three.
7:45 – Johnson poses DeRozan on the left block, takes three dribbles toward the basket and draws a shooting foul.
5:45 – Johnson takes a pass from Deron Williams above the break and immediately goes around a Mason Plumlee screen. John Salmons ends up trailing behind Johnson, having failed to go above the screen effectively. Jonas Valanciunas has dropped below the free throw line to contain the drive, and Kyle Lowry is showing help but stays close enough to Williams that he can recover in the event of a pass. Johnson actually slows down enough for Salmons to get back in front of him but Johnson lowers the shoulder, creating enough room for a one-handed floater in the lane.
5:06 – Johnson gives the ball to Williams under their own basket, Williams drives the length of the court for an and-one and somehow Johnson is gifted an assist. All-Star scoring, that.
4:38 – Johnson gets the ball on the inbounds and uses a Plumlee screen to get a step on Salmons. Valanciunas once again drops to prevent the drive, allowing Salmons to recover. Once again, though, Johnson uses the short-iso situation to bully Salmons, posting him above the circle on the right side and turning around off-glass.
4:00 – Johnson isolates Salmons and then begins to post from the right elbow. DeRozan slides over to double, leaving Shaun Livingston. Lowry panics and leaves Williams to help on the cutting Livingston, leaving Williams open for a three that Lowry’s too late to close out on. You just can’t double-team the post, tough as the match-up is.
7:40 – Johnson uses a down-screen from Williams to create space off of Salmons, curling into the lane for a Kevin Garnett pass. Patrick Patterson helps and contests well but Johnson nails the floater over top of him.
1:10 – Johnson uses a Williams back-screen to lose Salmons on the baseline, leaving him wide open for a pass from Paul Pierce under the bucket.
0:30 – Williams drives and the Raptors collapse, leaving two open shooters in Johnson and Alan Anderson. Luckily, Johnson misses the relatively clean look.
10:00 – Straight post-up for Johnson on DeRozan. Johnson gets the ball on the left block, pushes DeRozan back two steps but misses the turnaround.
8:30 – Johnson gets the ball up top on DeRozan and uses a hard Garnett screen to get into space. Valanciunas corrals the drive but Johnson pulls up from the right elbow and makes. Not much they could do here given the effectiveness of the Garnett screen and the fact that Valanciunas can’t get close to Johnson’s hip or be blown by.
6:45 – Johnson again gets the ball up top on DeRozan and this time uses a Plumlee screen, but DeRozan gets over top of it and is able to get back on Johnson…except that he never gets in front of him, he just stays at his side. Johnson makes yet another floater.
5:14 – Johnson comes off a Plumlee down-screen on DeRozan and gets the ball from Williams, takes two dribbles to the left elbow and pulls up. Pretty clear miscommunication between DeRozan and Valanciunas.
4:00 – Johnson uses a Plumlee screen to try and shake Ross but he does a decent job staying with Johnson. Valanciunas helps, too, and Johnson airballs a floater…into the hands of Plumlee for a basket.
11:10 – Johnson poses DeRozan on the right block late in the clock (we think), pushes off and steps back but misfires.
10:10 – Johnson poses DeRozan just below the left elbow and the Raptors hedge pretty aggressively ready to help, forcing Johnson to the left block. He then takes two dribbles to the center and misses a floater over DeRozan and the helping Chuck Hayes. Bad decision by Johnson not to find a shooter, but can you blame him?
5:05 – Lowry tries to draw a foul on Williams, forcing Patterson to switch onto him. As Lowry tries to recover on Williams, Patterson’s man – Pierce – pops open at the top. DeRozan leaves Johnson in the corner to close out, and Pierce finds him for what seemed like an open three, but Patterson does an excellent job to hustle on to him. Patterson and Valanciunas then seem to miscommunicate, though, giving Johnson way too much space for another floater.
1:45 – Johnson screens for Williams and then pops above the break to receive a pass. DeRozan is only a step behind but Johnson catches him recovering, gaining the first step in the opposite direction. Johnson pulls up rather than drive into Valanciunas’ help and DeRozan gets a hand on the shot.
Johnson primarily worked from post-ups, as is the standard for the Nets’ inside-out offense. By my count, he was 2-for-5 on straight post-ups but was also sent to the line once and dished an assist. He has a very clear strength advantage on DeRozan here, and one thinks he’ll adjust for Game 2 and opt to move DeRozan inward more rather than just creating enough space for a turnaround.
He also did a fair amount of damage off the ball, shooting 3-of-3 off screens or as a cutter and dishing one assist, too. He hit a spot-up three and used another spot-up three situation to drive for a floater.
Finally, Johnson didn’t use the pick-and-roll a great deal, and when he did he often opted to change his plan and go back to posting up. Valanciunas did a nice job sealing off drives but it’s still risky to have him drop to far below the screen because of Johnson’s ability to pull up from mid-range.
Guarding Johnson isn’t an easy proposition, because the Nets are far too balanced to double jim – and we saw what happens when a second defender pays him too much attention – and putting a bigger man on him isn’t all that palatable because Pierce can then pick apart the smaller wing. I’d like to see Ross get more of a chance on Johnson, but the answer is going to have to come at least in part from DeRozan doing a better job. We’ve seen DeRozan get lost when constantly screened in the past but he didn’t do a terrible job when put on the block, so there’s some hope. In any case, Casey will have to adjust the looks he throws at Johnson, because this was simply too easy for him.