Sometimes all a struggling teammate needs is a little reassurance, a dose of positivity, a pep talk.
So, on the way to the airport Thursday, Heat point guard Goran Dragic gave James Johnson one.
“We drove together to the airport and I was just giving him advice, some positivity,” Dragic said after Johnson reappeared from his recent funk and helped lead the Heat to a much-needed 91-88 victory over the Wizards Friday with 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and a much more JJ-like peformance at Capital One Arena.
“I told him not to take so much negative in because then you get in a bubble and it’s hard to produce,” Dragic continued. “He was just thinking negative things. I told him, ‘Every game is different and if you make a mistake, put it in a box and remember the good things you did like when you boxed out, scored or dunked.’ Tonight he was amazing. I was joking with him after the game that I gave him my swag. Because I didn’t have it.”
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While Dragic, Dion Waiters and just about everyone else on the roster except for Hassan Whiteside (22 points, 16 rebounds, 10 of 12 field goals) struggled Friday to get going offensively, Johnson, who signed a four-year, $60 million deal this summer to re-sign with the Heat, got back to looking like the player he was in the second half of last season.
He drove hard to the basket, got to the free throw line and set Whiteside up for big baskets down the stretch while the Wizards concentrated its efforts in slowing down Dragic and Waiters in the Heat’s pick-and-roll game. And that ultimately is why Johnson, 30, is so valuable for this Heat team. Big men like him don’t guard four different positions on the court, or handle the ball as well as he does on most nights. So he creates matchup problems when he’s playing as confidently as he did Friday.
“They mix it up – especially with him,” Wizards forward Otto Porter said. “He is their facilitator, he makes plays for them. Once he gets that outside shot going, it is tough to deal with him. He creates for them in so many different ways.”
It took only 76 seconds for Johnson to get off the bench Friday. Coach Erik Spoelstra didn’t like the effort Justise Winslow had at the start of the game guarding Markieff Morris, who scored the first four points of the game. So, he immediately went to Johnson and Morris scored only three more points the rest of the game.
“The J.J. that makes us go is the guy that leads that locker room, and that started [Thursday], by stepping in front of all of you and taking responsibility,” Spoelstra said. “And he didn't need to do that. We’re not putting it all on J.J. But he has that kind of emotional stability and maturity to set the tone for that locker room, that we need to get better. And you just start with him. He brought it [Thursday], brought it [Friday], brought an incredible competitive disposition.
“We don’t need to run all of our offense through him, but when Goran and Dion were getting bottled up a little bit, he handled a couple times, just to take a little bit of the load off, and made some nice plays. That’s ultimately his impact – leadership, defense and then a versatile all-around offensive game.”
The Heat is 24-10 all-time when Johnson has five or more assists in a game. He didn’t have five assists Friday, but he moved the ball and put it where it needed to go down the stretch – the hands of Whiteside.
The Heat’s achilles’ heel all season has been turnovers (Miami ranks 25th with 16.5 per game), a problem Johnson has had a hand in (he’s second on the team to Dion Waiters, averaging 2.7 per game). It’s made him a bit apprehensive. But he stopped playing that way Friday after Dragic, Whiteside, Waiters and co-captain Udonis Haslem all got in his ear and reminded him to be himself.
“It’s nice to play without thinking,” Johnson said. “All these guys believe in me. My teammates, they want it and need it from me. It’s just stepping up you know. Like I said, it wasn't my character these last two games. [Friday] you guys got to see it.”
Haslem, who is sharing the team captain title this year with Johnson and Dragic, said everyone on the Heat knows how valuable Johnson is to Miami’s overall succeess and how important it was to see him get back to playing like he did on Friday.
“We need him to be in tune mentally,” Haslem said. “Physically, your body is going to go through a lot of different changes over a long season, injuries and different things like that. So you’re not going to feel great every night. But mentally is where we need JJ involved every night. I just continue to stay on him and tell him, ‘We need you to be 16. Be No. 16. 16 is good enough. 16 is actually more than good enough. You be 16, you give us the best chance we have to win.’
“JJ is a very instinctual player,” Haslem continued. “He has good basketball instincts. He just has to trust his instincts.”
He did again on Friday.