Evin Demirel: Will Joe Johnson Suffer the Same Postseason Fate as Sidney Moncrief?


28 years apart, the two best Razorback NBA’ers face similar challenges

Visit Evin's Author PageThe greatest Razorback NBA player of the 20th century never made it to the Finals. Blame injuries and the best small forward of his era. By 1986, 28-year-old Sidney Moncrief had transformed his Milwaukee Bucks into perennial Eastern Conference contenders who won seven straight divisional titles. But they got over a hump in the 1986 playoffs only to run into a mountain.

In the second round, the Bucks won that franchise’s first seventh game of a playoff series, beating nemesis Philadelphia 113-112 at home. Moncrief, who had missed four games in the series due to plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the foot, gutted it out for 35 minutes in the pivotal contest. He “played as brave a playoff series as anyone since the Knicks’ Willis Reed hobbled onto Madison Square Garden floor against the Lakers in 1970,” Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum wrote.

Moncrief’s left heel and chronically sore knees weren’t the only ailments afflicting Milwaukee heading into the next round. Its other star, Terry Cummings, had a dislocated finger and scorer Ricky Pierce had sprained his ankle. But the Bucks’ most formidable obstacle came in the form of their next opponent’s 29-year-old, six-feet-nine small forward. Larry Bird had already won two consecutive MVP awards and led his team to two NBA titles. What resistance could Moncrief and the Bucks hope to put up as he steamrolled to another?


Fast forward to 2014, and now Joe Johnson –  this century’s greatest Razorback NBA’er – faces another 29-year-old, six-feet-nine force of nature. Heading into the NBA Playoffs’ second round, LeBron James had won two straight MVP awards and led his franchise to two NBA titles. Heading into tonight’s Game 1 showdown between Johnson’s Nets and James’ Heat, there have been a multitude of storylines but make no mistake about it: LeBron is ultimately the hinge on which the Heat’s fortunes turn.

His play will be the reason Johnson finally gets recognized as a legit superstar or remains the Moncrief of his era: a quiet, hard-working Little Rock native who never broke through to play for a title.

Like Moncrief, Johnson has had his own injuries to deal with. His best shot at a title was as a Phoenix Sun in the 2004 Western Conference Finals. But Johnson sustained a face fracture and missed the first two games of that series against the Spurs before coming back to pour in about 19 points in 40 minutes a game. Phoenix fell into an 0-2 hole in Johnson’s absence eventually lost four games to one. Johnson’s presence from the start would have made it closer.

Plantar fasciitis dogged Johnson throughout much of last year, his first with Brooklyn. The injury caught up to him in the worst way in the last game of the Nets’ opening round against Chicago. In Game 7, Joe Johnson shot 2-for-14 — including 1-for-9 on three-pointers — and scored six points as his team lost 99-93. It was the low point of the seven-time All-Star’s career.

This postseason, however, has been different. Johnson is now healthy and surging after a regular season in which he was limited to 33 minutes a game, down from 36 a year ago. The result: At age 32, Johnson has far put together the best playoff performance of his career – an extremely rare achievement for experienced swingmen. He led the Nets with just under 22 points a game in their first round against Toronto, including 26 points in a Game 7, one-point win on the road – the first Game 7 victory in Nets’ history.

Joe Johnson gif

“Whom will Joe Jesus Baptize Next?” – h/t NetsDaily

The man whom teammate Kevin Garnett dubbed “Joe Jesus” again and again saved the Nets’ offense from ruinous stagnation. As columnist Steve Lichtenstein wrote: “Many choose to ridicule Johnson for things like his excessive salary, his poor performance in the 2013 playoffs … and his unwarranted 2014 All Star selection, but the Nets are having exit interviews today if it weren’t for his efforts versus the Raptors.”

In the long run, though, Johnson still has his own national reputation to enhance, if not save altogether. The best beat the best. It’s one thing to knock off tenacious up-in-comers like Toronto. But it’s another thing altogether to beat defending champions who boast four future Hall of Fame players in James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen.

Yes, the Nets beat Miami all four times they played this season, but three of those games were by one point. And, as Johnson points out, a lot changes in the playoffs. “We know we can beat them, but it is going to be a lot different from the regular season in the playoffs,” Joe Johnson said. “So we understand that we will definitely have our work cut out for us and it is going to take a collective team effort.”

(Johnson has shown he can heat up in a hurry against Miami.)

In 1986, Moncrief and the Bucks also knew it would take a collective team effort to beat a Celtics team boasting five future Hall of Famers. That, and divine intervention. Psychologically, though, those Bucks had a lot less going for them heading into their series with Boston than these underdog Nets. Milwaukee had lost all five of its regular-season games and was simply outmanned at every position. Game 1, in Boston, didn’t exactly engender hope of an all-time upset.  “It was billed as a playoff game but it turned out to be another Boston Massacre,” columnist Michael Bauman wrote “This time, the Redcoats were wearing Celtic green and the unarmed civilians were from Wisconsin. Boston 128, Milwaukee 96.”

With the exception of Game 3, the rest of the series wasn’t much closer. Milwaukee was swept; Boston rolled to another title.


Will Brooklyn-Miami follow a similar path?

Will Johnson serve as yet another victim to be pushed aside as LeBron barrels to yet another title? Like Moncrief to Bird, is Johnson fated to be viewed by future generations as mere kindling for this particular LeBronfire?

No so fast, me.

“I think we have a good chance” to beat the Heat in the playoffs, Johnson said a month ago.  “Small-ball works in our favor with them when they have LeBron James or Shane Battier at [power forward]. It’s a great fit.” ESPN’s Mike Mazzeo agrees: “The Nets are well equipped to face the Heat. They play similar styles, thriving by deploying smaller lineups and causing turnovers. Brooklyn’s veterans like Garnett, Johnson, Pierce and Williams will not be intimidated by Miami. Garnett and Pierce were brought here for this exact reason — to tangle with James.”

Still, nobody has gotten the best of James in the playoffs since 2011. And good luck finding a national pundit who is predicting a Brooklyn win here. Yet, if Johnson helps lead Brooklyn to a career-defining upset, then the path to the NBA Finals considerably widens. Neither potential Eastern Conference Finals foe – Indiana or Washington – would be as tough to defeat.

Besides boosting Johnson’s national reputation and Razorback basketball recruiting efforts, the Nets’ advancing could have another result. Currently, LeBron ranks as Arkansas’ most popular athlete. It’s time that spot go to an Arkansan, if only for a New York minute.

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Demirel can’t find enough minutes – New York-y or otherwise – in the day to watch all the NBA playoff action these days. The University of Arkansas graduate Tweets here and blogs about Mark Cuban here.

Joe Johnson from Yonsan Johnson

Joe Johnson versus The Heat. Courtesy of Yonsan Johnson

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