Before joining the Heat, James Johnson considered himself tough and strong.
And few would argue.
Johnson has a second-degree black belt in martial arts and was undefeated in seven kickboxing and 20 MMA bouts.
But the Heat, Johnson said, have put him in “primal shape.”
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“Miami Heat shape,” he said. “They’ve never let me have a day off.”
He’s not complaining.
Now in his eighth NBA season with his fifth team, Johnson has emerged as a go-to force off the bench for coach Erik Spoelstra, who calls him his “Swiss Army Knife” — versatile and reliable.
“What he’s bringing are the things that we value: toughness, a defensive commitment, versatility offensively,” Spoelstra said. “We can put him in different places on the court — those things that we saw that we liked about him when he competed against us.”
Johnson has never put up gaudy numbers, averaging just 6.6 points and 3.2 rebounds in a career that has included stops in Chicago, Sacramento, Toronto and Memphis.
But he’s provided the Heat with a lift, offensively and defensively.
After a slow start in which he made only 5 of 21 shots in his first four games, Johnson has averaged 11 points and five rebounds in his past seven games going into Saturday night’s contest against the Wizards. He was on the court for the entire fourth quarter in Thursday’s win over the Bucks, finishing with nine points and 10 rebounds.
“They prime you for stuff like this,” Johnson said of the Heat. “They get you ready for opportunities like this. All you’ve got to do is follow the guidelines that they put out.”
Washington rookie Sheldon McClellan sat at his locker about an hour before Saturday’s game against the Heat, eyes glued to the lit screen on his smartphone.
The object of his fascination? The Miami Hurricanes game Saturday against the University of Pennsylvania.
“Up by 20,” McClellan said, clearly pleased.
McClellan starred for the Hurricanes a year ago but went undrafted.
Unfazed, McClellan signed as a free agent with the Wizards and has contributed, appearing in six games, including two starts.
“He made the team because he worked hard and put himself in a position to make it,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said.
Brooks has been pleased with McClellan’s performance thus far but said he’s still a work in progress.
“He has a lot of work ahead of him,” Brooks said. “But I like where he’s at now. He’s able to attack the basket and finish around the rim. And then his outside shot — I don’t know if it’s NBA three right now, but it’s close.”
McClellan said he talks to Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga at least a couple of times per week.
“He was supportive from the time I stepped foot in Miami to today,” McClellan said. “He’s always giving me motivation, to keep working hard, to not worry about what people say who are outside of my corner.”
Never mind basketball. Justise Winslow’s left wrist is so sore that he isn’t using it to either eat or drive.
“I’m not taking any chances with it,” said Winslow, who missed his third consecutive game on Saturday. “I haven’t done anything with my left hand for a couple of days now.”
Winslow’s return remains uncertain.
“I can feel it when I eat, when I drive,” Winslow said of his wrist. “I’m staying away from all that right now.”
eye on ellington
Spoelstra saw some signs of improvement from Wayne Ellington, who has yet to play this season because of a bruised thigh.
“He was able to go through parts of shootaround [on Saturday],” Spoelstra said. “This is the first time he’s done anything full court with the team. So that was encouraging.”
The Heat plays 10 of its next 13 games on the road, including four in a row starting with Saturday night’s contest in Washington.
Spoelstra said the road bonding experience could be beneficial.
“I think with this group it’s important,” Spoelstra said.
“It’s not a guarantee that you’ll have any kind of result from that. But we do have a lot of new faces, and guys have to build a connection and an intuition on the court.”
Spoelstra said he feels it strengthens a team’s resolve when they’re on the road.
“You build toughness, you build grit when you’re on the road,” he said. “They’re embracing the competition, embracing the thought that defensive toughness travels.”