There’s still so much we don’t know about Tyler Johnson. After all, he’s played in only 107 NBA games counting his brief, five-game soiree in the playoffs last summer after he missed the final 35 games of the regular season following rotator cuff surgery.
But his gutsy fourth quarter performance Wednesday night when he blocked a shot at the rim and then scored the final five points of the game in a 107-102 victory over the Sacramento Kings provided further evidence the Miami Heat probably made the right decision when it matched a four-year, $50 million backloaded deal to keep from losing the 24-year-old undrafted guard to the Brooklyn Nets.
Johnson has not only become one of the best bench players in the league this season and a legitimate sixth man candidate, but he’s also become a reliable go-to option in crunch time as the Heat continues to try to fill a sizable void late in games following the departure of 12-time All-Star Dwyane Wade.
Johnson scored half of the Heat’s 20 points in the fourth quarter Wednesday and finished with a team-high 23 in the game.
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“It’s not a coincedence that Tyler's most memorable moments happen down the stetch,” coach Erik Spoelstra told FoxSports Sun after Wednesday’s victory, which snapped a six-game losing skid including an eight-game skid on the road and improved Miami’s record in clutch situations to 8-15 this season.
“He's a fearless player, a fearless competitor,” Spoelstra continued. “And if you’ve had that kind of mentality in close games you're just going to find a way to put your fingerprints on the game. That’s what Tyler does. The three-point play, the block, that trackdown is one of those habits and winning plays we talk about all the time. That really saved the game probably – that play [when he blocked Nick Collison at the rim on a fastbreak with 50.2 seconds to play]. But also, some other plays. It all stems from just being a great competitor.”
Moments after Boston’s Isaiah Thomas scored 29 of his career-high 52 points against the Heat in a Celtics win last Friday, Spoelstra compared Johnson’s mentality to that of Thomas, a similarly small, tough, left-handed guard who “wants the moment, wants the ball, and is not afraid to fail.”
Thomas, taken with the last pick in the 2011 draft, became an All-Star last season for the Celtics at age 26. Thomas’ second season in the league, when he played his 100th NBA game, he averaged 13.9 points, 4.0 assists, shot 44 percent from the field and 35.8 percent from three-point range for the Kings.
Johnson, in his third season, is averaging 13.9 points per game, 3.3 assists, shooting 43.3 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range this season.
The difference is Johnson isn’t starting like Thomas was, but he is playing valuable fourth quarter minutes.
Johnson played all 12 minutes again Wednesday of the fourth quarter and ranks second in the league in fourth quarter minutes (370) overall behind the Clippers’ Jamal Crawford (372), who has won the NBA’s sixth man of the year award three times.
In games where the scoring differential is five points or less and there are five minutes or less left in regulation (clutch situations), Johnson ranks fifth in the league in minutes played (88) behind Marc Gasol (101), Russell Westbrook (91), Anthony Davis (89) and Kemba Walker (89). He’s shooting 45.5 percent from the field (15 of 33), 35.7 percent from three-point range (5 of 14) and averaging 1.9 points per game in the clutch, second on the team to Goran Dragic (2.5). Last year, Wade, the Heat’s go-to option late in games, also shot 45.5 percent in the clutch.
Among players who have played in at least 10 games with clutch situations this season and are averaging at least 1.5 shots a game in clutch situations (meaning they've usually got the ball in their hands late), Johnson is tied for 11th in the league with Langston Galloway in field goal percentage (45.5%). The top 10: LeBron James (58.3%), Harrison Barnes (57.1%), Paul George (56.3%), Frank Kaminsky (53.3%), CJ McCollum (51.2%), Stephen Curry (50.0%), Kemba Walker (50%), Patty Mills (50%), Isaiah Thomas (48.1%) and Evan Fournier (46.4%). Goran Dragic ranks 17th at 42.4 percent.
Of course, there’s so much more to Johnson’s game than simply having the guts to take and make big shots late in games.
He makes a ton of hustle plays. Johnson’s 79 deflections this season lead the Heat (the next closest player is Josh Richardson who has 62). He ranks on the second on the team getting to loose balls (31) behind Rodney McGruder (35) and he’s drawn two of the team's nine charges this season on defense.
Defensively, Johnson is holding the players he's guarding to 0.7 percent below their average, not spectacular, but still above average. His 25 blocks rank second among guards (Milwaukee 7-footer Giannis Antetokoumpo ranks first with 67) and his 1.2 steals lead all Heat guards.
Johnson has also learned to protect the ball better and improved his playmaking skills. His assist-to-turnover ratio (3.00) ranks 14th in the league, but he’s actually more elite than that when it comes to creating offense with his 111 assists and limiting turnovers (38). There are only two other players in the league with at least 110 assists and fewer than 40 turnovers: Tony Parker (120 assists, 38 turnovers) and Andre Iguodala (116 assists, 25 turnovers).
COMING UP NEXT
Friday: Heat (11-26) at Lakers (13-25)
When/where: 10:30 p.m., STAPLES Center, Los Angeles, Calif.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish)
Series: Lakers lead 31-26
Scouting report: Center Hassan Whiteside (retina bruise in right eye) is expected to rejoin the team in Los Angeles this weekend and could return Friday after a three-game absence. Back on Dec. 22, the Heat rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the Lakers 115-107 in Miami. Los Angeles will be playing on the second night of a back to back after playing in Portland Thursday night.