Ethan J. Skolnick

Heat’s Joe Johnson applies calm, analytical approach to basketball, life

Joe Johnson has scored 19,187 regular-season points in his 15-season career but never has reached a conference finals.
Joe Johnson has scored 19,187 regular-season points in his 15-season career but never has reached a conference finals. AP

There’s an understanding about Joe Johnson, among those who know him. It covers his cerebral, methodical approach on the court, an approach that has helped carry him to a productive and lucrative 15-season career, and one he carries off the court, too.

“You’re not going to rush him,” his uncle Tracy said.

The characterization is common enough that, late Friday, after the Heat’s 108-97 win against the Orlando Magic, teammate Dwyane Wade laughed as Tracy Johnson’s quote was relayed.

“Yeah, nah,” Wade said. “You don’t rush [Joe]. You don’t rush him. He plays his own pace, he does it his own way. And that’s one thing we loved. Obviously, we knew he was a great scorer, he’ll be one of the next guys to 20,000 [points] in this league, but we also knew he was a playmaker and he was a mismatch problem. That’s why we really wanted him.”

That’s why there isn’t the slightest concern, even as Johnson has hit the first speed bump of his short Heat tenure, making just 6 of 19 shots over the past three games, for a 6.3 point average, after converting 57.1 percent for a 15.7 average in the 11 games prior.

Even so, the Heat is quite comfortable with his pace of progress, particularly since the team has a 10-4 record since he joined, entering Monday’s game against Johnson’s most recent team, the Nets. And he’s quite comfortable with the welcome he has received, and the role he’s assuming, even if he isn’t stuffing the stat sheet quite the same as in previous stops.

“Honestly, man, I just try to take what the defense gives me,” Johnson said. “We got so many guys on this team who can put it in the hole and create and make plays. Every night is not going to be my night, and I understand that. I’m not even trying to force that issue. I’m doing what I feel is necessary for the team. A win is a win. Doesn’t matter how you get it.”

It also doesn’t matter how you get a player, whether through the draft, free agency, trade, D-League call-up, or another team’s buyout — in this case, the Nets’ — so long as that player can help.

Still, there’s something especially serendipitous and sweet for the Heat about the way this played out, someone of Johnson’s pedigree — seven All-Star selections in 15 seasons — selecting Miami over other contenders, even a couple (Cleveland, Oklahoma City) with better records, especially with the Heat reeling from the loss of Chris Bosh. Nor was it an easy decision for him, because few are. He describes himself as a “real thinker, observer, and I try to evaluate situations, and question, before I have a tendency to react.”

Sometimes, though, he will recognize a need to rush himself.

“Honestly, I had started to overanalyze the whole situation, because there was so much coming at me at once, and I had never been in a situation like that,” Johnson said. “ Other than when I was getting ready to go to college.”

That college time was spent at Arkansas, and went well enough that the Boston Celtics took him 10th overall in 2001. That was the first of his five teams, with stints in Phoenix, Atlanta and Brooklyn, where he took a buyout on Feb. 25 after initially resisting that option. Where to go next? Miami “was always in the back of my mind.”

“I always felt it was the best place for me,” Johnson said. “But there were so many options that kept coming and coming and coming, I was like, ‘Damn’ … You know what I mean? And in the deal, I lose three million, and I got a team offering me five, and I got a team offering me three to make up for the three that I lost. Is it that important? What’s more important? There were things I needed to evaluate … and really, it was like, ‘Man, make the decision.’ ”

So he made it. He’s here, at least until the end of the season, and he’s expressed a desire to remain after becoming a free agent.

So you’ll get to know him better.

“Just real humble,” said Tracy, who is a decade older. “He was a quiet kid. It’s carried over to his adult life. He’s very unassuming because he’s so bright. He pays close attention to everything. When you’re thinking he’s not paying attention, he’s probably paying the most attention at that point.”

His childhood was spent in Little Rock, where according to Tracy, he’s still “Just Joe.” Easy, calm, surprisingly ordinary. He says that won’t change. “Yeah, definitely, because were the people who were behind me when I first started,” Johnson said. “That’s where a lot of my friends are. That place molded me into the person that I am today.”

No one more than his mother, Diane, who regularly worked two jobs, including a graveyard shift as a nurse at a psychiatric ward, to raise him while helping raise her younger brothers, including Tracy, too. Johnson, who would sometimes stay with his grandmother for days, says his mother’s struggle “made me hungry, more than anything; it made me want to work hard, because I never wanted to see her work as hard as she did. Those are the times that I always think back to, when I’m having a tough day, a tough moment. It’s all worth it.”

And it made him happy, more than anything, that her rare cancer, multiple myeloma — which was diagnosed in 2008 — went into remission after chemotherapy and stem-cell treatment. She’s now visiting with him in Miami.

What she’s seeing is a son with a smile. He has found a formula to stay in top condition, taking up hot yoga on the suggestion of a Hawks trainer in 2008 to treat knee tendinitis and Achilles’ trouble, and to improve his flexibility. He switched to Bikram Yoga later, religiously finding places to participate on the road, and “I really think it saved my career, honestly.”

That career has included 19,187 regular-season points and 87 playoff appearances and nearly $200 million in earnings. But he has never made a conference finals, let alone an NBA Finals. He believes “we’ve got just as great a chance as anyone else,” with “a great mixture of older guys and younger guys,” and the veterans like himself willing to sacrifice whatever is required.

“We’ve had our fun in the sun, so to speak, averaging 20, 25, 26 points a night, D-Wade 30 points a game,” Johnson said. “Shoot, for me, I’m just blessed to still be playing this game and not be bogged down with injuries. I cherish every minute I can step out on the court. Fifteen years, not a lot of guys can say that.”

When is the end?

Don’t rush him.

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