PORTLAND – After days of playing Dirk Nowitzki on the scout team in practice, Trail Blazers rookie forward Chris Johnson finally got a chance to play against the Mavericks’ All-Star Thursday night in Game 3 of this playoff series.
And he didn’t disappoint.
Johnson joined Blazers star Brandon Roy as one of the surprise heroes of the Blazers’ 97-92 win, playing huge fourth quarter minutes off the bench in relief of both Marcus Camby and LaMarcus Aldridge to help the Blazers pull to within a game (2-1) in the series.
No one was happier for the D-League Defensive Player of the Year than the men he relieved, Camby more than anyone since taking Johnson under his wing when Johnson signed with the Blazers as a free agent March 14. His 6-foot-11, 210-pound protegé looked like Camby-lite, grabbing three rebounds, blocking two shots and altering a couple of others in his six minutes of crunch time action against the Mavericks.
“Chris came in played well and you always get happy for guys like that, who work so hard behind the scenes,” Camby said. “You never know in this league when your number is going to be called. And tonight he played well when his number was called.
Johnson is one 45 former D-Leaguers working in the playoffs, a list that includes Mavericks guards Jose Barea, Roddy Beaubois, Dominique Jones and forward Ian Mahinmi. Johnson has plenty of D-League alumni company in his own locker room with Luke Babbitt, Earl Barron, Armon Johnson and Patty Mills all have logged time in the D-League.
There were 103 former D-Leagues on NBA rosters at the end of the regular season, a record-high and a number that represented 23 percent of all players in the league. Johnson said his time in the D-League prepared him well for what he saw on the floor Thursday night.
“I just went out there and did the same things I always do,” said Johnson, whose late third-quarter swat of a Nowitzki shot served as the turning point for the Blazers. “I just wanted to be active. That’s my role this year. And I need to thank my coaching staff and my teammates for putting me in the right position to be successful.”
It always helps to play with an infectious energy that is hard to miss on the big stage. Blazers coach Nate McMillan said Johnson’s contributions were as crucial as anyone’s in what was a must-win game.
“He did a good job on the pick-and-roll defense, weak side he came over and changed a few shots,” McMillan said. “His minutes were crucial minutes, very important minutes. And it allowed us to keep Camby on the bench for a few minutes as well as give LaMarcus a breather. And as we tell our guys, you never know when your opportunity is going to come. All of our guys, they work to prepare themselves for the opportunity. And tonight, he got his … we knew he was the Defensive Player of the Year down in the D-League and tonight he very well on the defensive end.”