The Miami Heat was unable to stretch the third-longest winning streak in franchise history beyond 13 games Saturday night, a frustrating defeat for coach Erik Spoelstra because the team turned it over 20 times and didn’t share the ball nearly as well as it has since it began its second half turnaround.
But even in its first defeat in nearly a month, the Heat (24-31) took something palpable home from its 3-1 road trip: more proof journeyman foward James Johnson, 29, may only be starting to scratch the surface of his abilities as a reliable and efficient go-to-scorer.
“I love where he’s growing,” Spoelstra said of Johnson after he scored a season-high 26 points for the second game in a row Saturday and eclipsed the 20-point mark for the third consecutive game for the first time in his career.
“We want to continue to be open to where he can get to next. Hopefully, we’re not going to stop here. Hopefully, there’s another level or two or three, whatever it may be, that he can get to.”
After signing a one-year, $4 million deal with the Heat last summer (the most he’s earned in one season during his eight-year career with six teams), Johnson (6-9, 250) has put himself in position to triple or quadruple his salary this coming summer with his best season yet (12.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.1 blocks, 35.5 percent three-point shooting percentage).
He’s not only demonstrated the ability to be able to guard every position on floor on the defensive end, Johnson has run the Heat’s offense more and more as the season has progressed. He is blowing past defenders with his “yo-yoish” crossover dribble regularly, hitting pullup jumpers with ease, scoring on up-and-unders, and flashing the kind of versatility that reminds point guard Goran Dragic of former Heat star and four-time league MVP LeBron James.
“He’s such a mismatch on both ends of the court,” Heat guard Tyler Johnson of what it’s like to have a versatile player like James Johnson on the team, a player he’s grown close to personally and one he’s teammed up with to form the best bench scoring duo in the league this season.
“You can’t play a stretch four against JJ,” Tyler Johnson continued. “He can also battle with big guys. His versatility ... there’s just not a lot of players like him in the league.”
The head-scratching part of Johnson’s emergence is how many other teams got a good look at him before the Heat found a way to maximize his talents.
Six years ago, Johnson, a former first round pick, spent three weeks playing for the Iowa Energy of the NBA's D-League before the Chicago Bulls, who drafted him with the 16th overall pick in the 2009 draft, traded him to the Toronto Raptors for a first round pick.
A year later, Johnson was traded to Sacramento for a second round pick. After playing only 54 games for the Kings, he was cut by the Atlanta Hawks at the end of the 2013 preseason. He then signed a free agent deal with the Memphis Grizzlies in December 2013 and played in 52 games before the Raptors signed him to a two-year, $5 million deal the following summer.
But Johnson wasn’t afforded the opportunities the Heat has given him this season. Nor was he in as good a shape physically as he’s been in since arriving in Miami.
Both of those aspects could end up giving the Heat an inside edge at resigning him down the road – if it can afford to. But for now, Johnson is enjoying and thriving in his time here.
“I knew I had an upside to me, but it just was always in a box, in a role,” Johnson said Friday night after another one of his signature do-it-all games (26 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocks) in a win at Brooklyn. “I always stuck to my role, but I never stopped working on my all-around game.”
Even on the nights he doesn’t score, Johnson has found other ways to help the Heat win. In a victory at Chicago on Jan. 27, he scored only six points on 3-of-15 shooting from the field, but finished with nine rebounds and nine assists.
Defensively, no one on the Heat does a better job shutting down the players they guard. Among a group of 221 players who have played in at least 30 games and defended an average of at least seven shots per game, Johnson ranks second in the league in defended field goal percentage (38.6) and shooting percentage differential (-6.7).
He also leads the Heat in deflections (107), ranks second on the team in screen assists (95) to center Hassan Whiteside (148) and fourth in loose balls recovered (38).
But it’s just over the span of the last five to six weeks that the offensive part of his game has really started to take off.
Johnson has posted six of his seven 20-point games this season with the Heat since Dec. 30. Prior to joining Miami, Johnson had seven 20-point games in his entire career.
Spoelstra, though, isn’t rushing to put any pressure on Johnson’s shoulders. He prefers Johnson’s game continues to grow organically.
“Everybody wants something right now in a microwave society,” Spoelstra said. “JJ’s been gaining more confidence, getting more comfortable in our offense, learning how to play with the ball and without the ball, and he’s earned more opportunities to make plays. But he hasn’t demanded it, he’s not overdoing it and he’s not overstepping his bounds.
“He’s doing exactly what this team needs and his role continues to grow, which is what we want.”
Monday: Magic (20-36) at Heat (24-31)
When/where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710
Series: Heat lead 62-47
Scouting report: Dion Waiters, who has missed three consective games with a sprained left ankle, said he expects to return and play in Monday’s game for Miami. The Magic won a 136-130 double overtime game in Miami Dec. 20, but has gone just 7-18 since.