It took eleven years, but Joe Johnson finally has a signature NBA moment. The Little Rock native who many around the nation see as a cipher superstar, a diligent marksman known most of all for taking down a $126 million contract, on Wednesday night crossed over Boston’s Paul Pierce with a guile of such historic proportions it wouldn’t shock to see Pierce henceforth become known simply as “Delaware River.”
The play came with 8:10 left in the game, and Johnson’s Brooklyn Nets holding on to a 74-65 lead. Johnson received the ball near the arc, squared up Boston’s 10-time all-star and seemed to channel every single dribbling drill he’d done with Kevin Durant through each fiber of his body. As Yahoo’s Dan Devine put it, “through the legs, behind the back, step to the right, super-low cross back to the left, a couple of E. Honda dribbles out in front, and then exit, stage right.”
The Nets went on to win, 95-83, helping keep the franchise at the top of the Atlantic Division with a 10-4 record. Despite struggling earlier in the season, Johnson scored a team-leading 18 points in the win. His team, in its first season since moving from New Jersey, also features All-Stars Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace, as well as a likely future All-Star in center Brook Lopez.
Before Brooklyn, Johnson had spent his longest stints in Phoenix and Atlanta. In neither place did the former Razorback do any one thing all that memorable. Hef simply produces numbers and a fair but not outstanding number of wins. The 31-year-old’s game only occasionally dips into the Sportscenter-worthy, and even then it’s usually some variation of a three-pointer, a runner or an 18-foot jumper. Johnson, relatively unathletic for an NBA star, for the most part doesn’t do flashy on the court.
In this way, Johnson, arguably more talented than any Razorback before him, has followed in the footsteps of the two best big guard/wing Razorbacks to ever play in the NBA: Alvin Robertson and Sidney Moncrief. Robertson and Moncrief’s forte was defense, whereas Johnson’s has been offense, but the postseason fates for all three have so far been similar. For all their individual accomplishments, none has made an NBA Finals.
In fact, Johnson’s most memorable on-court moment until now is yet more evidence of his team’s playoff failures. In 2005, Johnson was having a breakout playoff run with Phoenix, averaging nearly 19 ppg while shooting 56% on threes. The team was an offensive juggernaut and a legit threat to win the West. Then, at the start of the second round, Johnson drove hard to the basket and took a hard, mid-air foul that sent him tumbling face first to the ground. Amazingly, he still shot two free throws despite a fractured bone around his left eye before leaving the game.
But his season was finished. The Suns would be defeated in the next round, 4-1 by the Spurs, but Johnson’s presence likely would have made it much closer.
Johnson’s teams never seem to maximize their potential. Indeed, Johnson himself plays in such a way that fans – especially aggravated Atlanta Hawks in recent years – wonder if he’s trying all that hard. The game so easily flows through him, and his demeanor is so steady, that at first glance it doesn’t appear he’s giving close to max effort. That studied effortlessness gives the impression Johnson could always do so much more than what he actually does.
On Wednesday night against Boston, he delivered on his potential and then some. Many people wonder why he doesn’t send more defenders tumbling to their knees and, more importantly, if he’ll again do it in the playoffs, when it really matters.
Maybe Johnson and his new Nets never will reach their rather lofty potential. Maybe all the franchise’s glitz - the fancy-pants herringbone pattern on the court of their new, $1 billion arena, the affiliation with co-owner Jay-Z – is all merely for show. Maybe somewhere the great Red Auerbach is looking down at all Brooklyn’s hipster fans eating their locally sourced hot dogs, and he’s choking on his stogie.
With the caliber of play Johnson brought on Wednesday, it doesn’t matter.
Even if the Nets’ wheels fall off from here on out, and Brooklyn never delivers on its promises of postseason glory, we now at least have a centerpiece for some future video montage made for Joe Johnson’s induction to the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Little Rock native Evin Demirel is a freelance writer digging on sports and society. He attended the University of Arkansas and in a previous life taught 8th-grade Latin at the Episcopal Collegiate School.