PORTLAND — You have to wonder if Joe Johnson is watching what’s going on around the league right now, if he knows what time it is for players of his ilk?
Surely he’s seen the highlights. He’s witnessed the work guys like Chris Paul, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Zach Randolph, Brandon Roy and so many others have done these past two weeks.
Johnson’s a gym rat, a guy who lives and breathes basketball. When the Hawks were sitting on the outside looking in at the playoffs a few years back, I remember having a conversation with Johnson about this very thing. He said he’d been working out one night while the playoffs were on TNT and knew that he needed to crank up his workout routine to make sure he didn’t have to watch like that again. He went in and hit the weights around 3 a.m. after watching the game’s brightest stars shine on the biggest stage that night.
That desire to join that playoff party is what drove Johnson back then. He’s made All-Star teams since, four to be exact, played on the U.S. national team and been to the playoffs for four consecutive seasons. He’s had a few signature playoff moments, but has endured more downs than ups in his postseason career with the Hawks.
If he wants to rewrite his own history, though, he could start with a star turn tonight at Philips Arena in Game 6 of the Hawks’ first round playoff series against the Magic. The Hawks can eliminate the Magic and move on to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the third straight season to face the top-seeded Bulls.
The Hawks will need more than just an average Joe Johnson to finish this job and finish off the Magic. They need the All-Star, the wunderkind that wore No. 2 for the Hawks in January and averaged 26 points on 50 percent shooting form the floor while leading them on a near month-long tear. They need the Johnson that helped them win Game 1 of this series in Orlando with those 25 points on 9-for-16 shooting.
What won’t work is the Johnson we’ve seen since then, the one averaging 17 points and shooting a combined 23-for-65 (35.4 percent) from the floor, the one who scored just five points in a blowout Game 5 loss.
The Johnson that plays without any emotion, with that blank stare on his face, will do the Hawks no good tonight. If ever there was a time for Johnson to step out of character and show his fangs for all to see, this is it. Because the Magic certainly won’t hold back. You know Dwight Howard will be in Terminator mode knowing he’s just 48 minutes away from going fishing if his team loses. The Hawks need the same thing from their “superstar.”
(You can debate whether or not Johnson fits that bill or not; what’s not up for debate is whether or not the Hawks need him to play like one tonight.)
“People can point to Al Horford, Josh Smith, Jamal Crawford, [Hawks coach] Larry Drew and even Jason Collins as the key figures in this series,” an advance scout friend told me. “But if the Hawks want to get past Orlando they’ve got to get a superstar performance from Joe Johnson. If he gets going … they become a really scary team for anyone that has to face him.”
You wonder if Joe Johnson realizes that or not, if he knows what time it is …