The NBA’s most prolific bench pairing makes for an unlikely duo — the undrafted guard who twice, earlier in his career, needed to convince AmericanAirlines Arena security that he’s a Heat player, and the veteran bruiser who averaged a mere five points per game last season.
“That’s my brother,” Tyler Johnson said, speaking figuratively in a quiet moment, standing alongside James Johnson, in an AAA hallway eight hours before the Heat played the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday.
Johnson missed Saturday’s game because of a strained left shoulder, an injury sustained Thursday against the Dallas Mavericks. Johnson, who is listed as day-to-day, had surgery on the same shoulder last season. Coach Erik Spoelstra said no MRI is scheduled at this point. That shoulder surgery last year sidelined him for the final 26 games of the regular season and first six games of the playoffs.
Not only are the Johnsons by far the NBA’s highest scoring duo among players who haven’t made a start this season (combined 25.8 points per game), but they’re the only two NBA players who have produced at least 400 points, 150 rebounds and 100 assists off the bench.
What they’ve achieved is even more impressive considering how they’ve arrived at this point.
For Tyler, there were hundreds of hours in the gym, honing his shot and his playmaking skills, all part of the arduous process of transitioning from undrafted free agent to a $50 million man and one of the NBA’s leaders in fourth-quarter minutes.
“If you watch how hard he plays every possession, it’s hard not to be inspired,” James Johnson said. “It’s easy to look at that guy and see how hard he works. He deserves everything.”
For James Johnson, the respect has been earned not only by the diversity in his game — 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and as Goran Dragic said, the ability to defend multiple positions — but also by the commitment he made to reshape his body.
Johnson, who finished last season at 276 pounds as a member of the Toronto Raptors, said he’s 245 now.
When he met with Heat president Pat Riley and Spoelstra on his July “recruiting” trip to Miami, he was at 14 percent body fat. He’s at 7.5 now.
“They don’t beat around the bush; neither of them do. I got the honest truth, and it felt good,” said Johnson, whose scoring average is nearly five points above his 7.0 career mark.
“I thought I was satisfied where I was at, being in the middle of the pack and not trying to be better. This year, they demanded it out of me to be better. It wasn’t guaranteeing I was going to play. It was just getting in the best shape you can and let’s see what you can do.”
As Spoelstra said: “We’re not for everybody. At this point in his career, he wanted to see what would happen if he put all his chips in and really invested in himself.”
James Johnson also appreciates the opportunity to show more of his playmaking skills than in the past. His 3.0 assist average is well above his 1.6 career average.
“What a great coach like Spo does is he evaluates,” James Johnson said. “It was a lot of the early [offseason] playing five on five with the guys. They saw what I could do, and they kept allowing me to do it.”
He said he also appreciates that “most of the guys in the second unit trust me to be the point forward who gives [them] the ball. When I get a rebound, they run to the corner even though they’re supposed to run a play.”
Spoelstra said Johnson is “getting more opportunities now to handle playmaking than he had six weeks ago and that’s borne out of success.”
An impending free agent, James Johnson’s three-point game also has developed. He’s shooting 37.1 percent on threes, well above his 29.4 career average.
Also, his 49 threes are easily a career high; he never made more than 22 in eight previous seasons.
Tyler Johnson, meanwhile, entered Saturday having scored in double figures in 14 consecutive games, two off Chris Gatling’s franchise record for a bench player.
He also entered second in points per game among all NBA players without a start, his 14.2 averaging narrowly trailing Oklahoma City’s Enes Kanter (14.6) and ahead of James Johnson, who’s No. 3 at 11.6.
But Tyler, who’s shooting 43.1 percent overall and 37.9 on threes, cites his playmaking as his biggest area of growth, “being able to hit the roll man on the pick and roll. Believe it or not, I was never able to do that coming through the ranks. It was always score first. I could make passes, driving and kicking. I could make passes in transition.
“But as far as halfcourt, you’ve got to run your offense and make passes to get other guys involved, where they can be in position to score, that’s been the [biggest growth].”