Blocking 3-pointers consistently is not an easy job, but James Johnson has to do it.
The most recent entrant into the Top Plays Theatrefor his ability with the basketball, Johnson is even better on the other side. Since being called up from a D-League stint in late December, he has developed a habit of annoying the best shooters on the wings and in the corners. He is a good shot blocker inside the arc, but shooters aren’t any safer from deep.
As Kevin Durant and James Harden found out multiple times, the 6-foot-9 Johnson has the activity level of a young Gerald Wallace (you don’t earn the nickname “Crash” for nothing) and Josh Smith, using any opportunity to terrorize whoever tries to launch from deep. When a shooter crouches to get in position, he takes it personal, using short powerful bursts and exquisite timing to close space fast.
He does this without fouling, which is perhaps the rub. Many players have the ability. A few have the willingness. But how many are skillful enough to keep pulling it off? James Johnson may not be a household moniker (outside of Memphis anyway), but you better believe that opposing coaches know who he is. The name may be plain, but the man has game.
When the Clippers marched into Memphis for a Friday night clash, the stakes were obvious. Prior to the contest, defensive stalwart Tony Allen was on the shelf for 21 straight games with a sprained left wrist. But when the Clippers, the Grizzlies’ first-round playoff opponent the last two years, came calling, he wasn’t going to sit out any longer.
The game lived up to its physically demanding, plenty of trash talk billing. Z-Bo, Marc Gasol and Allen made an impact, for sure, but it was the guy who was signed out of the D-League in December who beat the loudest drum.
A man who is no stranger to the spectacular, James Johnson arrived into the Grizz’ locker room December and has been wowing since. He is a nightly highlight machine, giving a hard-hat bunch a creative playmaker from the wing, thus another dimension as they get set to make a playoff push in the second half.
On a night the organization honored him by giving fans a temporary “GRIZZLIES” neck tatoo (Johnson has his son “NAYMIN” inked around his neck), he flat out showed out, executing a play that will be remembered in the Top Plays Theatre for the foreseeable future:
ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — It took him until his fifth NBA team, but forward James Johnson seems to have finally found an NBA home this season with the Memphis Grizzlies. As an energy/hustle guy off the bench, Johnson perfectly illustrates what the “Grit And Grind” Memphis Grizzlies are all about.
At first glance, one thing stands out about Johnson: He has a huge tattoo on his neck that reads “NAYMIN 3.9.13.” Johnson got the tattoo in honor of his son born on that date, six weeks premature. After fighting to survive, his son pulled through and is now coming up on his first birthday. As Johnson told ESPN.com: “Life changed for me after that. Life wasn’t about only me anymore. After that day, the head on my shoulders was different from what it was before.”
So to honor Johnson and his contributions to the Grizzlies, the team will give away 5,000 “GRIZZLIES” neck tattoos before their home game on February 21. As Grizzlies COO Jason Wexler told ESPN, “The tattoo he got wasn’t a symbol of toughness. It was a transformational moment in his life, and that resonates with our fans and fits in with everything we are.”
How fitting is it that the next Horry Scale participant — James Johnson — would top Smith’s Knicks with a terminator of his own?
The Sacramento Kings led by as many as 27 points, but Manhattan’s own (playing without Carmelo Anthony) mounted a furious comeback. On the penultimate possession, Jason Kidd saw Tyson Chandler cutting to the basket. As he’s done a million times before, Kidd lobs the alley. But he didn’t see DeMarcus Cousins waiting for the pass.
Cousins stole it and an Isaiah Thomas miss, tip rebound, pass and Johnson 3-pointer later sealed a wild contest and the highest ranking of the Horry Scale in two years.
For those that are new around these parts, the Horry scale examines a game-winning buzzer-beater (GWBB) in the categories of difficulty, game situation (was the team tied or behind at the time?), importance (playoff game or garden-variety Kings-Pistons game?), and celebration (is it over the top or too chill? Just the right panache or needs more sauce?), and gives it an overall grade on a scale of 1-5 Robert Horrys, the patron saint of last-second daggers.
How does Johnson’s shot Friday night stack up? Let’s take a look.
To say the Kings got lucky is an understatement. They blew a huge lead. The Knicks grabbed lead late in the game and looked like victory. Then Kidd made an errant pass, which led to Sacramento’s final possession. Thomas dribbled left and launched a shot that hit nothing but backboard. Johnson outfought Kidd and Chandler to tip the ball back out. Thomas corrals the ball from near midcourt, makes move to middle of the paint.
One pass to the corner to John Salmons, who fired the rock to the right wing. Steve Novak almost intercepted the pass, but the ball landed safely in the hands of Johnson. And despite his 0-for-11 mark from 3-point territory this season (and 28 percent career mark from there), Johnson iced the shot.
Or you can look at it this way: The Kings were out of control on the final possession and were bailed out by a lucky 3. But that’s nibbling … at the end of the day, a made shot is a made shot.
It also brought back memories of the man who helped inspire this very Horry scale:
Ironically, Horry’s shot was against the Kings.
Knicks led Kings by two — 105-103 — at time of Johnson’s game-winner. A miss ends the game, giving the Kings a bad taste after blowing such a lead. It would have also given the Knicks their second win of the road trip.
The play was significant on two levels. Primarily, this loss would have sunk morale to lower levels in Sacramento. The Kings were staring down the barrel of more condescending “there’s Kings basketball, blowing 20-plus leads at home” talk. Facing a tenuous future, star player troubles and a general lack of court identity, the Kings needed Johnson’s shot to fall in the worst way.
Secondly, it gives them a quality win. When you’ve only won nine games, as the Kings have, a win over the staunch Knicks is nothing to take lightly. At the very least, Sacramento has a breath of fresh air in the midst of a dirty fishbowl season.
The euphoria of Sleep Train Arena and the Kings’ sideline contrasted perfectly with Knicks coach Mike Woodson’s grimace and his team’s look of misfortune. As Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Co. showed us before, very few basketball arenas know how to crank up the noise like Sacramento. The Kings looked more relieved than utopic (not a word?). In this case, those two are probably one in the same.
(Is it safe to say that the Kings franchise is a vital part of the Horry Scale lifeblood?)
Well, make this two. Johnson’s actual shot wasn’t nearly as impressive (how do you top a fullcourt shot to nab a win at the buzzer?), but within the context of the season, it stands out as much. He gave Sacramento an extra shot with his hustle before delivering the nail. Johnson is far from a marksman from distance, perhaps the most unlikely King on the court to make that play. While the dwindling clock gave him no choice but to launch, his ability to come through prevented the Kings’ worst loss of the season and secured a win at the same time. With that, Sacramento made its biggest contribution to the NBA storyline this season, vanquishing the Knicks in most dramatic fashion.
Unfortunately Mr. Rose is currently out of the lineup for Chicago, having missed the past six games with a hamstring strain. So when the game came down to the final possession against the Raptors tonight, it brought up a quasi-philosophical question: if the Bulls need a game-winner and Rose isn’t around to take the shot, does it make a sound? (Or something like that).
Looks like we have our answer.
For those that are new around these parts, the Horry scale examines a game-winning buzzer-beater (GWBB) in the categories of difficulty, game situation (was the team tied or behind at the time), importance (playoff game or garden-variety Clippers-Nets game), and celebration, and give it an overall grade on a scale of 1-5 Robert Horrys.
The Bulls may not have Rose, but they still have one more All-Star, and that is Luol Deng. Let’s see how his understudy did:
The time element was the only thing difficult about this shot. Deng set a pick for C.J. Watson at the top of the key, then immediately dove to the basket to put himself in position for exactly what was to come — a potential tip-in situation. I would give Deng credit for a nice box-out to get his hold in the lane, but the Raptors really made it easy on him. To be fair, there is always a lot of chaos in a final-shot scenario like this, it’s easy to lose your man. But Deng faces no opposition at the basket once he gets in the air, and the ensuing tip-in after Watson’s shot comes up short is a piece of cake.
The Raptors led 101-100 after James Johnson hit 1-2 free throws with 15.2 seconds left in overtime, then failed to extend that lead when Gary Forbes missed a pair with 6.4 on the clock. The Bulls then inbounded the ball at midcourt with 6.0 seconds left — plenty of time to get a shot off, but with no room for error since they were trailing.
Here is what I wrote after Rose’s GWBB back on March 7:
The Bulls fell to the Heat in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, and the two teams appear on a crash course to go at it again this May. With the way Miami has improved, home-court advantage could certainly play a big role in that series, and as such, every win for Chicago will matter from here until the end of the regular season.
Since that win over the Bucks, the Bulls have gone 6-2, but have gained only one game on the Heat in the standings. The sentiment still stands.
If I had to make a list of every player in the NBA, then rank them most to least expressive, I’d probably put Deng somewhere next to Tim Duncan down near the very bottom*. So you know Deng has to be pumped to react the way he does after the ball drops — immediately pointing to the stands to celebrate with the fans. Of course by the time the camera pans in on his face the emotion is gone, but we’ll take what we can get from Lu. Bonus points for John Lucas nearly spinning like a top on Deng’s head, plus the shot of Rose watching it all unfold from the bench. By the way, someone tweeted after the game that in the Bulls’ last 82 games covering this season and last, their record is 68-14. Going to be an interesting postseason in the East, no doubt about it.
* Who would be at the top, you ask? That’s easy — Ronny Turiaf.
3 Horrys. Last-second tip-ins are always a fun sub-genre of the Horry Scale. I’m tempted to debit a half-Horry for the way the Raptors gave this one away, but I won’t. The stakes are always a little higher when you trail at the end, and Deng deserves a lot of credit for making a very difficult situation look relatively easy. Good on the Bulls for doing it all without Rose as well. And the cherry on top? The win made the Bulls the first team in the NBA to clinch a playoff berth this season.
What do you think?
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Missed the cut: Darius Songaila, Sixers; Jeff Teague, Hawks; Ish Smith, Grizzlies
Team synopsis: Wake Forest may not seem like much, but they do have the best point guard in the NBA and the greatest power forward of all time, which makes them pretty dangerous no matter who else is on the court. Howard may not be the All-Star he was in Dallas, but he can still be pretty dangerous. Aminu and Johnson are youngsters with talent who don’t get a ton of minutes, but their per-48 stats suggest that could change down the road.