Miami Heat

James Johnson is trying to evolve in year two with the Heat. But it hasn’t been easy.

Miami Heat forward Josh Richardson, guard Tyler Johnson, forward James Johnson and center Bam Adebayo talk in overtime of the Heat’s win over the Knicks at AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, January 5, 2018.
Miami Heat forward Josh Richardson, guard Tyler Johnson, forward James Johnson and center Bam Adebayo talk in overtime of the Heat’s win over the Knicks at AmericanAirlines Arena on Friday, January 5, 2018.

Erik Spoelstra says James Johnson’s role isn’t “dramatically different.”

He still wants the 6-9, 250-pound power forward to have the ball in his hands, to create offense for his teammates, to attack the basket at the right moments. That’s a lot of what Johnson did when he helped spearhead the Heat’s 30-11 finish last season before signing a four-year, $60 million deal to stay in Miami last summer.

Spoelstra has simply asked Johnson to do what he does in a different way – in an offense with several new wrinkles in it (mainly dribble handoffs) – and in fewer minutes because the roster now includes Kelly Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo.

Johnson, who turns 31 on Feb. 20, says he’s bought in. He just hasn’t had any easy time figuring out how to be as consistently impactful as he was in the second half of last season. But he’s not giving up.

“I’m buying in,” Johnson said Friday before he went out and produced five points on four shots with three rebounds and two assists in woeful performance by the Heat’s starters in a loss to the Sixers. “That’s the only way I can describe it. I’m buying in to what our offense needs and to what Coach Spo wants out of me. I think that’s the hardest thing in the NBA, accepting your role and trying to be the best at it.

“It’s a challenge that I want for myself and I think once I figure it out and break through, it’s just going to make it a lot easier for everybody.”

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Detroit Pistons forward Reggie Bullock, left, drives to the basket against Miami Heat forward James Johnson (16) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Detroit. Duane Burleson AP

Saturday night in a loss to the Pistons, Johnson came off the bench and produced 18 points (7 of 12 shooting), five rebounds, seven assists and two steals in 29 minutes, a performance that resembled the player he was the second half of last season.

“Everybody will notice if he scores points,” Spoelstra said. “It’s not about that. It’s about leadership, his captaincy, No. 1. No. 2, then those defensive inspiring plays. He was guarding one through four, one through five when he was on Drummond and Griffin virtually all the minutes he was out there. Doing it without fouling, playing all the pick-and-rolls, it’s inspiring for our guys. They really follow his lead when he does that. And then obviously on the other end, he just brings great versatility. It’s tough to scout for a player like that. So is he in his comfort zone off the bench? I don’t know, but we’re going to need more of that going down the stretch.”

Did Johnson feel any different coming off the bench Saturday?

“No,” he said. “Just was having bad games previous games. Nobody to blame but myself. But there’s a point in time that you have to look yourself in the mirror and no matter second group, first group, I was playing terrible. I just came with a different energy. My team approached me, coaches approached me. It’s all about responding. It’s how you can respond, how you can bounce back.

“[My team] gave me the truth. Sometimes the truth can set you free and I believe it did.”

Although Spoelstra feels otherwise, Johnson’s role the second half of last season felt and looked vastly different than what we’ve seen from him this season when he starts games. To begin with, he didn’t join the starting lineup until the final five games of last season.

As a starter this season, Johnson said his primary job has been to move the ball “to the second side” before running over to set a screen for a teammate. Often times it has not resulted with him getting the ball back off a pick-and-roll, and he says he’s gone several possessions without touching the ball at all.

“I know coach Spo wants us to snap and chase and get it to the second side,” Johnson said Friday. “That’s what I’m trying to do. We need to get to the second side. We need more snaps and chase, and it’s been successful with the [power forward] doing it. I’m just trying to buy into that and get teams rotating and hopefully the pocket pass will start getting there more. Or, hopefully I can start being a little bit more aggressive in our offense.

“[That’s] less tough when I’m running the [point] and making plays, and still looking for myself. But as a [power forward], you might not touch the ball for three or four possessions and you’re playing defense and then you finally touch it. But it’s not your turn to shoot. That’s your time to get us into the second situation or try to move [the ball] from the strong side to the weak side, weak side to strong side. At those times where I get the ball up top and I’m able to swing it and move it to the second side, those are the times we need [to swing it].”

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Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (23) drives to the basket against Miami Heat forward James Johnson during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Detroit. Duane Burleson AP

When you compare his second half numbers last season to what he’s accomplished thus far this season, Johnson is playing three fewer minutes per game (26.8), 3.7 fewer points (10.2), three fewer shots (8.4) and eight fewer touches per game (54.5) even though his field goal percentage (47.6) and three-point shooting percentage (30.1) are almost the same.

The big difference this season is his offensive rating is much better in 23 games off the bench (106.2) than it is in 22 games as a starter (100.4). Defensively, his net rating is better with the starters (103.9) than it is off the bench (105.1).

His better offensive numbers off the bench are likely a result of how Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson are the primary ballhandlers with the starting unit. When Johnson comes off the bench he has the ball in his hands more. But Johnson said after Friday’s loss in Philadelphia he isn’t sure a return to the bench is necessarily the answer.

“J-Dub [Justise Winslow] is really running that second unit very well, very well,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to take nothing from him either or take nothing from what that unit is doing. That unit was moving the ball, playing with each other, playing well off it, off the ball and you see what we’re capable of doing when the ball is moving and multiple guys are touching it, us getting it to the second side, sometimes the third side. That’s making defenses work and I don’t think me going to the second unit would help what the second unit is already doing.”

Pat Riley has told Johnson to shoot the ball more. Dragic said he’s encouraged Johnson to be more aggressive “because if you’re passive we cannot get nothing [going on offense].”

“When he’s aggressive then the defense is going to be inside the paint more and then he can make plays,” Dragic said. “I think he’s going to be fine. The season is so long. It’s a lot of ups and downs. Right now his confidence is down maybe, but we’re going to get him back.”

Spoelstra said ultimately it is going to be up to Johnson to figure out how to play better – no matter if he’s starting or coming off the bench.

“Hey, we have a better team than last year. Guys have to evolve,” Spoelstra said Friday. “We were playing with seven or eight guys a lot of times last year, so everybody had more opportunities. Welcome to having a better team. This is what we want and you have to adjust and you have to evolve and JJ has shown the ability to do that. Guys will continue to get more comfortable and more efficient offensively.

“He doesn’t have to overthink it. We’re not going to reinvent a bunch of things for him. We know and he knows what his strengths are and how he helps us offensively. He just has to be more consistent and detailed with it. Detail is a big thing.”