Miami Heat

James Johnson admits ‘I haven’t been moving the needle.’ Then Sunday’s opportunity came

From a personal standpoint, Heat forward James Johnson’s season has included nearly every adversity short of a shark attack.

There was the sports-hernia surgery last May that sidelined him the first 15 games of the season, the loss of his starting position, a painful shoulder injury, and most recently, the loss of his rotation spot.

But Johnson approached the latest setback with a positive attitude and some honest-with-himself introspection.

“I haven’t been moving the needle like I should,” Johnson said last week. “Our players are playing well. [Derrick Jones Jr.] is playing really great. [Kelly Olynyk] is playing really great. Coach is doing his due diligence and playing the guys who have been moving the needle.

“It’s up to me to get extra work, get my conditioning, keep everything up so when my opportunity comes I’m ready.”

And when Johnson’s opportunity came Sunday, he was ready. The 32-year-old finished the Heat’s win over the Hornets with six points, three rebounds, and three assists in 17 minutes in a bench role, and recorded all of his stats while playing the entire fourth quarter.

Before Sunday’s contest, Johnson had not played in 11 consecutive games (the first four because of a shoulder injury and the next seven as an active scratch). His previous appearance was a Feb. 21 loss to the 76ers, which was Miami’s first game after the All-Star break.

“He’s been able to stay ready. It’s not easy,” said coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team faced the Thunder in Oklahoma City on Monday night. “That, I do have great empathy for. A player who was in the rotation and then things changed. But he worked.

“There was a practice a couple days ago that I texted him afterward and said that I really appreciated all the work he’s putting in behind the scenes when no one was watching. That doesn’t guarantee anything. He didn’t play the next game. But you notice these things and we needed him tonight. He stepped in and gave us phenomenal minutes, particularly defensively.”

The absence of Justise Winslow, who was unavailable due to a right thigh bruise, made room for Johnson in Miami’s rotation on Sunday. When Winslow returns, there’s no guarantee Johnson will play consistently.

“It’s a lot more difficult when your team is losing,” Johnson said of falling out of the Heat’s rotation. “But our team and our guys are playing well. They were playing well and they’ve been winning. If you don’t like that, you’re just a hater, as simple as that. I really love these guys. I’ll go to war with these guys any day. As long as they’re winning and playing well, I’m a happy guy.”

So to use Johnson’s words, in what ways can he “move the needle” more?

“Just everything,” he said. “Communication, plus/minuses, locking up [defensively], being aggressive. We have so many guys who can do everything. Sometimes I don’t need to do as much as I think I do, but that’s just my competitiveness.”

Johnson entered Monday averaging 7.8 points on 43 percent shooting, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in 42 games this season. He has made 33 starts, with his last start coming in a Feb. 2 loss to the Pacers.

The Heat has been outscored by 76 points with Johnson on the court this season.

Johnson — who’s making $14.4 million in the second year of a four-year, $60 million contract — said he never spoke to Spoelstra about losing his rotation spot and didn’t want to broach the issue.

“I’m trying to make this not about me as much as possible,” he said. “I know he’s busy. This is no time for a guy to go in and complain about minutes. I know where I [stand]. And if my name gets called, I’m going to play to the best of my abilities.”

HEAT INJURY UPDATE

Winslow and Rodney McGruder missed Monday’s game against the Thunder.

Winslow was unavailable because of a right-thigh bruise that he suffered in Friday’s loss to the Bucks, and McGruder was out due to left-knee soreness.

“It was bothering him a little bit the last few days, and we just want to take care of it,” Spoelstra said of McGruder.

It marks the second consecutive game that Winslow has missed with his thigh injury, and the ninth game that he has missed this season. For McGruder, it’s the third game that he has missed this season due to injury or illness.

NO WESTBROOK

Thunder All-Star guard Russell Westbrook missed Monday’s game against the Heat at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Westbrook received his 16th technical foul of the season when he argued with an official in the second quarter of Saturday’s loss to the Warriors. A player’s 16th technical automatically earns him a $5,000 fine and a one-game suspension.

Guard Charles Cooke joined the Heat from the organization’s G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, for Monday’s game against the Thunder. The Heat signed Cooke to a 10-day contract Friday.

Forward Yante Maten, who is under a two-way contract, also rejoined the Heat from the Skyforce for Monday’s contest in Oklahoma City.

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.
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