When you are an NBA player who’s team awards you with a six-year, $119 million deal, that’s a sign that you are expected to be the go-to guy, and leader of that team, especially come playoff time. The Atlanta Hawks gave just such a deal to Joe Johnson this year, and once again Joe has failed to show up in the post-season.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Joe Johnson is a fine player, and he brings a lot of good things to the Hawks. But Johnson has never been that guy to just take the team on his shoulders and get the job done. Yes, he has some good nights, and has turned in some clutch performances in his seven seasons in Atlanta, but unfortunately clutch is not the word you would use to describe how he has performed in the playoffs.
Johnson is supposed to be one of the top scorers. He’s got to be. He has to be that guy that the opposing coach says about him, “He’s going to get his points, let’s focus elsewhere.” Instead, it seems teams are able to bear down on Joe, and completely shut him down when it counts the most.
The proof is in the numbers. Through his career in Atlanta, Johnson has averaged 20.9 points per game during the regular season, shooting with a 45% field goal percentage, and 36% from three-point range. In the playoffs those numbers dip to 17.9 ppg, 38% fg, and 31% 3-pt. Those are some pretty big differences for a guy who is supposed to be the one who steps up when it counts the most.
When you look across the court at the Boston Celtics, and their anointed team leader Paul Pierce, you see a much different story. In regular season play, Pierce averages 22 ppg, 45% fg, and 37% 3-pt., and his post-season numbers are nearly identical. But the big difference is leadership. I’ve watched Pierce literally grit his teeth and carry his team to a lot of playoff wins, whereas I’ve rarely seen Joe Johnson become an effective catalyst for his teammates, be it through his play or his determination.
So far in this year’s first round series against Boston, Johnson has been a non-factor. In the first two games against the Celtics, Johnson has averaged 16.5 points, a 31% fg percentage, and has been absolutely abysmal from three-point range, shooting just 17%. He’s also throwing in 3.5 turnovers per game, when his career average is less than two. And in the game 2 loss, the Hawks netted -3 points while Johnson was on the court, which means the Celtics were going on runs and scoring more than Atlanta while Joe was playing. Comparing again to Paul Pierce, the Celtics netted +4 when Pierce was on the floor.
With the injuries that the Hawks were already dealing with, and with Josh Smith suffering a sprained knee in game 2, Joe Johnson has to step up if the Hawks are going to have a chance at winning this series. Johnson is going to have to elevate his post-season game, and make everyone around him better. The problem is, based on what’s been seen in past seasons, it’s not clear whether or not he has it in him.