With every basket James Johnson scored in overtime Monday night, Wayne Ellington kept saying the same thing to himself.
“This,” the Heat’s three-point specialist said. “is the J.J. I know.”
Johnson’s franchise-record 18 points in overtime (three more than the previous overtime scoring mark of 15 set by LeBron James in a double-overtime win over Sacramento in 2013) propelled the Heat to a 149-141 double-overtime victory over the Denver Nuggets and into seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
More importantly, his teammates hope, it propels Johnson, who signed a four-year, $60 million deal last summer, to playing like the guy who earned that contract on a more consistent basis.
What we saw in the final 10 minutes of Monday’s game was the 6-9, 245-pound athletic forward play with the sort of aggression and assertiveness he displayed during the Heat’s 30-11 second-half finish. He took eight of the Heat’s 12 shots in overtime and made seven of them en route to a career-high 31 points (on 13-of-17 shooting).
In his 63 games played this season, Johnson has attempted fewer than eight shots total in 29 of them.
“I mean, what can you say? Our captain was so inspiring tonight,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Johnson, who played 46 minutes and spent most of it guarding former All-Star Paul Millsap and a potential All-Star Nikola Jokic. “It was challenging to score end of games and overtimes, especially when they started to adjust everything. And J.J. was just able to create opportunity out of seemingly nothing, or when we got stuck. And that’s what great leaders do for you.”
Said Ellington: “He was doing it from every angle on the floor, shooting threes, he had the midrange, he was getting to the cup, and-ones, strong finishes. That’s the type of guy he’s capable of being. We know that. He was trying to be aggressive. He’s such a team guy, sometimes he defers to his teammates. We love that about him as well.”
When Johnson has deferred in the past, though, not everyone has agreed with his decision to do so. There have been times he has passed up open shots.
The weight of his new contract, All-Star point guard Goran Dragic surmised, might be part of that.
“I think maybe he puts a little bit too much pressure on himself, especially [after] he signed the deal,” Dragic said. “I went through that, too, so I can relate to that. The team, the fans, they’re expecting more. So maybe because of that [he has been too passive]. We always [tell] him, ‘Hey, be yourself.’ Because when he’s playing with a confidence like tonight, it’s really tough to stop us and him.”
There aren’t many players in the league who score as easily as Johnson does on drives to the basket.
In fact, among players averaging at least five drives per game and at least 2.5 field goal attempts on drives, only LeBron James (60.1 percent) and Steph Curry (57.1 percent) convert at a higher shooting percentage than Johnson (56.8 percent). Johnson is actually converting at a higher clip than he did last season when he ranked ninth in the league (51.8 percent).
By comparison, Dragic, a first-time All-Star who ranks seventh in the league with 14.9 drives to the basket per game (Johnson averages six), is shooting 45.7 percent on drives.
Johnson said his success in overtime Monday all came from having confidence.
“I think it all started when coach drew up that play for me to try to end the first overtime for me It just kept flowing from there,” he said. “The ball finds energy and [their] guys were doing a great job of stopping our guys that were really on fire like Kelly Olynyk, Dragon, Wayne. I just happened to be open. The guys happened to find me and I just took the shots I happen to work on every day.”
Before a loss at Philadelphia in early February, Spoelstra said Johnson’s role on the team had not changed much from last season, that the Heat had a deeper rotation and players simply had to evolve and adjust to having fewer opportunities. With Hassan Whiteside and Dwyane Wade out for nearly two weeks, those opportunities to score have increased.
“J.J. has been trending in the right way for several games,” Spoelstra said. “If nobody’s noticing, fine. Keep it that way around the league. That locker room knows that he’s been playing great. He’s been providing the leadership, consistency and it has nothing to do with stats. [Monday] it was scoring, but the next game it might be the Swiss Army knife game, where he’s getting eight assists, eight rebounds, and generating a lot of looks with his ballhandling, and continuing to defend one through five. He’s so unique. When your leaders and your captains lead the way like that, it’s pretty easy to follow.”
Defensively, Johnson’s metrics are down this season. On shots he has defended, he’s holding opponents to 45.5 percent shooting, 1 percent below their season average, a field-goal differential that ranks sixth on the team among current rotation players. Last season, Johnson led the team in field-goal differential, holding opponents to 40.5 percent shooting (4.8 percent below their average shooting percentage).
The good news? As Spoelstra points out, Johnson is trending in the right direction, holding players he guards to 41.5 percent shooting (4.9 percent below their average) over his last five games. Offensively over that same stretch, Johnson has ranked second on the team in scoring (17.8 points per game) behind Dragic while averaging 7.2 rebounds, a team-leading 5.4 assists and shooting 66.7 percent on 10.8 shots per game.
“I’m just worried about what matters,” Johnson said of why he’s trending in the right direction. “[That’s] trying not to let my guy score, being in the help position, where I’m supposed to be. The offense is going to take care of itself.”
Monday night it all came together for Johnson and the Heat won.