It’s not a novelty act.
James Johnson is having a career season with the Miami Heat, the kind that will likely earn him a significant raise over the one-year, $4 million deal he signed with his fifth NBA team this summer.
Johnson, 29, is averaging a career-high 11.7 points, five rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, shooting 49.8 percent from the field (second-highest of his career) and has now made twice as many three-pointers (44) as he did when he set his previous career-high for a season three years ago with Memphis.
He’s not only become a reliable three-point shooter (39.6 percent), but he’s also the best defender on the team, holding the players he’s guarding to 6.2 percent below their normal shooting percentage and 38.6 percent shooting overall (third-best in the league among forwards to defend at least 200 shots this season).
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He and Tyler Johnson have formed a friendship and a formidable one-two punch off the Heat bench, the kind you would like to keep around if the team can fill other more pressing needs in the starting lineup this summer in free agency and the draft.
Johnson has always been known for being a solid, above average defender. His 6-9, 250-pound frame and athleticism (he’s a former MMA fighter and second-degree black belt) make him ideal to cover any position on the court including center. He’s done that plenty this season when coach Erik Spoelstra decides to play with small lineups.
But ultimately what’s taken his game to the next level this season is his improved offensive game. So what’s led to Johnson, a career 29.6 percent three-point shooter, suddenly finding his long-distance shooting stroke?
“I would say all of the above,” Johnson said after the Heat’s 127-100 loss to the Lakers Friday when he scored 20 points and knocked down four three-pointers. “I worked on my game. I knew I had a three-point shot. But it also comes with confidence – confidence within, confidence from your coach and confidence from your team. I feel like everyone on this team and everybody on this staff has confidence that I work on my game enough that I can take those shots and it’s just paying off for me right now. That’s all.”
Johnson said he’s learned where to take his shots from watching film “and also knowing who I’m going to go set the screen for, who I’m chasing and handing off for.”
“A lot of those guys are selfless players and if they shoot the shot then they really think they have the best shot of that possession,” he said. “Eight times out of 10, they’re going to kick it back for the dump off or the go ahead three.
“Even though I wasn’t getting the opportunity to take those jumpers [on other teams], I was still working on my game and I’ve been working at it during the summer time. Like I said, you get a little bit of confidence, that’s the majority of the jump shot.”
SHOWING HE BELONGS
Willie Reed matched a career-high with 22 points in Friday’s loss to the Lakers and once again showed flashes of dominance in the paint with 12 rebounds and three blocks in 31 minutes.
In the four games Hassan Whiteside has been out and Reed has started, the 26-year-old backup center has averaged 13.5 points, 8.8 rebounds (3.8 offensive rebounds), two blocks and shot 65 percent from the field. Those are the kind of numbers that could potentially attract NBA suitors this summer to give him a raise over the $1.1 million he’s supposed to make next season if he sticks with his player option.
“I'm just trying to show the world that I belong as well as show the Miami Heat that I can help this team,” Reed said Friday.
But for all the numbers he’s been posting of late, Reed also acknowledged there’s still plenty for him to work on, too. The Lakers scored 68 points in the paint Friday, the most the Heat has allowed this season and Reed took ownership of some of the defensive breakdowns.
“I have to be more vocal to let the guards know where the ball screens are coming and I didn't do a good job of that,” he said. “I have to be able to speak up so they can get into them and we can make it hard for them to score at the basket.”
Individually, Reed is among the worst defensive centers in the league. Among the 66 centers in the league to defend at least 150 shots, Reed ranks 53rd in defensive field goal percentage (49.7 percent) and 59th in field goal differential (+2.9 percent). Whiteside ranks 33rd (46.8 percent) and 19th (-1.4 percent) respectively in those same categories.
Heat captain Udonis Haslem, a huge Dolphins fan, took his teammates to see Miami host the Arizona Cardinals earlier this season in a private suite.
Sunday, when the Dolphins make their first playoff appearance since 2008 at 1 p.m. in Pittsburgh, the Heat will be preparing to face the Clippers at the Staples Center. As much as he wants to tune in to watch it, Haslem said he’s going to be focused on the Clippers.
“I’m very excited,” Haslem said of the Dolphins making the playoffs. “It sucks that we have to go against Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh. I’m a huge fan of Antonio Brown and good friends with him so I’m kind of torn. But my loyalty is going to always roll with the Dolphins.”
Haslem trains in the off-season at Pete Bommarito Performance and often sees Brown, a Miami Norland grad there.
What’s Haslem’s prediction for the game?
“What do you mean, what do I think is going to happen? What kind of question is that? Is that a trick question? I think the Dolphins are going to win, man,” Haslem said. “In a perfect world, I hope Antonio Brown has a great game because I’ve developed a friendship with him and Le’Veon Bell because I work out with him. But if both of those guys have a good game, it’s probably not a good thing for the Dolphins. I just hope the Dolphins pull it out some kind of way.”