CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When James Johnson signed a one-year, $4 million deal with the Heat last summer, no one expected him to average 27minutes a night.
Then Chris Bosh, Justise Winslow and Josh McRoberts all went down, and the bearded, journeyman forward was called upon to fill the massive frontcourt void.
Johnson has answered thecall and then some. In his eighth season, Johnson is having a career year. Without him, who knows if the Heat would have been able todig themselves out of an11-30 hole in January and rattle off 13 straight wins to get back in the playoff race. And yet, with only a few games left in the regular season, he's still getting better.
Johnson scored a season-high 26 points in his first start of the season to lead the Heat to an112-99 victory over the Hornets on Wednesday at Spectrum Center. The win pushed the Heatinto the eighth and final playoff spot in the East before the Pacers jumped back ahead Thursday night with a win over the Bucks.
“Come on, [Johnson] was terrific and it’s not just the shots, because that necessarily won’t happen every night. It’s his willingness to accept whatever role,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Johnson is doing things he’s never done in his career. He drilled a career-high six 3-pointers against the Hornets, going 6 of7 from deep. His previous career high was four, which he hitthree times earlier this year.
He’s averaging career bests in points (12.6), rebounds (4.8), assists (3.5) and 3-point shooting percentage (35.9). He came into this year averaging 6.5 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists and shooting 26 percent from the 3-point line.
Somehow, a guy who has played for five teams over eight seasons is finally finding his best game at age 30.
“I didn’t come into this year trying to prove anybody wrong, I came in trying to prove myself right,” Johnson said Wednesday. “It was all about getting in the right shape. Not just getting into it for a month or two and falling off, keeping myself a good shape for a whole year was a goal of mine.”
Johnson didn’t just get in good shape —he got in the best shape of his life by dropping 40 pounds.
“He changed his body completely,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said. “He’s opening to any advice and suggestions so he can be in the right spot for us. He has unbelievable talent. For his size, he can play multiple positions. He can pass it, he can shoot it."
This is the same guy that had a stint in the D-League and was cut by the Hawks at the end of the 2013 preseason.
"I've always liked him. I don't really understand why nobody gave him a chance,” Hornets forward Nicolas Batumsaid. “He's always been great. Even in Toronto, I remember that every time he played, he brought something. I think he found the perfect team for him in Miami because of the way he plays.”
Johnson can guard nearly every position on the floor and has been drawing tougher assignments on the defensive end since Winslow, Miami’s defensive savant, went down with a torn labrum. Johnson is an excellent isolation defender, as opponents shoot 5.2 percent worse with him as the primary defender, per NBA.com's defensive tracking. Among players who average 27 minutes per gameor less (right at Johnson's average), he's sixth in the league in defensive win shares, and that same number among all players ranks higher than starters like Jae Crowder, Marc Gasol and Paul George.
Perhaps the best illustration of Johnson's defensive tenacity and versatility came against the Pelicans earlier this season when Johnson (6-9, 250 pounds) refused to let DeMarcus Cousins (6-11, 270 pounds) catch the ball in the post, leading to a shot-clock violation.
James Johnson might have just played the best defense on Boogie I've seen all season by a smaller defender than him pic.twitter.com/MEXASg3POF
— Jorge Sedano (@SedanoESPN) March 16, 2017
Even if the Heat —just a half game behind the Bulls and Pacers in the East standings —miss the playoffs,Johnson’s career-resurrecting year will pay off this summer. He’s likely to get a massive pay increase as an unrestricted free agent, one that may triple or quadruple his current salary. Johnson has previously said it would be a "dream come true"to stay in Miami, but the Heatknow he won't be staying for $4 million this time around.
But those discussions will come after the season. For now, the Heat will keep letting their diamond in the rough shine as he has all season long.
“I don’t know why some teams in the past didn’t give him enough of an opportunity or enough minutes,” Dragic said,“but I’m just happy he’s here here helping us.”