James Johnson said it was the “instincts of a brother, instincts of a teammate who cares” that led him to rush toward the Hawks’ Taurean Prince in a fit of fury on Wednesday night after the seldom-used rookie forward flattened Hassan Whiteside, leaving the Heat’s $98 million center writhing in back pain following the dirtiest of flagrant fouls.
Prince, the 12th overall pick out of Baylor in last June’s draft, might not have known it at the time, but he’s lucky that all he got from Johnson, a second-degree black belt and former mixed martial arts fighter, was a shove.
Ironically, Prince was fortunate Heat assistant Juwan Howard and team captain Udonis Haslem — two lifetime NBA enforcers themselves — were there to help shove Johnson away and diffuse the situation.
“We’re building something here, and he was being aggressive and physical,” Johnson said after both he and Prince were ejected following the fourth-quarter fracas in the Heat’s 116-93 victory. “Whiteside went down, and that’s all I remember after that.
“Honestly, I don’t think I can beat everybody in the world up. But I’ll take my chances in that situation.”
For a season that looked dead at the midway point, the Heat, winners of nine in a row and now only three games out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a 20-30 record, showed us again Wednesday it has got more than a lot of fight left.
For all the other well-documented on- and off-the-court breakdowns in places like Cleveland and Chicago, Johnson’s actions Wednesday were a reminder of how tight a bond this Heat team has built through adversity. The sharing and caring even extends to money.
“I got James’ fine,” Whiteside declared in the locker room after Wednesday night’s game. “No problem.”
Since it was Johnson’s sixth technical foul this season and second ejection that number came out to $7,000 — pending further action from the league.
Despite his background in professional fighting, Johnson had never been ejected during his first seven years in the league. But he’s now been ejected twice in a Heat uniform and hit with those six technical fouls this season, nearly as many as the eight he had combined for as a member of the Bulls, Raptors, Grizzlies and Kings.
“Everyone on this team you got to protect,” said guard Dion Waiters, who was also hit with a technical foul for shoving Prince, Waiters’ third technical of the season.
“You got to look out for one another. That foul was not necessary. You could have just wrapped him up. Things happen, J.J. was right there and took action. I respect it because I would have wanted him to do that for me, and I would damn sure do it for anybody in this locker room. I think everybody knows that.”
Prince told reporters in the Hawks locker room afterward it was never his intent to injure Whiteside.
Whiteside called the play by Prince “dangerous” and called him “a fake tough guy.”
“I don’t know,” Whiteside responded when asked what he thought Prince’s intent was with the hard foul. “Maybe it’s because he doesn’t play. I don’t know what his frustration is. But it’s all right.”
The Heat plays the Hawks (28-21) for the final time right after the All-Star break in Atlanta on Feb. 24.
Whiteside said he played on an adrenaline rush after Prince’s foul down the stretch of the Heat’s blowout. He finished with 18 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who has been hit with seven technicals himself this season, said he was happy with the way Whiteside reacted after the foul.
“I thought he responded great,” Spoelstra said. “He cooled himself off. He was hot when he first got up. But he cooled himself off, gathered himself emotionally in the timeout and then just proceeded to control what he could control and that’s beating them on the basketball court.”
Spoelstra just smiled when he was asked if he was pleased with Johnson’s reaction. After all, nothing makes a coach or fan base happier than seeing teammates stand up for one another like Haslem (37 career technical fouls, two ejections, two flagrant fouls) has and Howard (111 career technical fouls, six ejections, 25 flagrant fouls) did during their careers.
“I would rather him not get ejected,” Spoelstra said of Johnson after a long pause. “But if [Haslem] or Juwan Howard were out there telling him, ‘What the heck are you doing? You can’t do that,’ they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths.”