TORONTO – The Miami Heat are desperate. And we all know what desperation calls for.
And Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called on James Johnson.
“There’s no other call,” Spoelstra said following Miami’s 112-99 victory at Charlotte Wednesday that buoyed the Heat’s playoff chances. “How many guys do we have left? The minutes he gave us were crazy good. What else are we going to do? We’ve cycled through basically everybody.
“We’re at the stage in the season. It’s go time.”
Actually Spoelstra had two other options to replace Luke Babbitt, who is dealing with a strained hip flexor, in the Heat’s starting lineup. Neither apparently appealing. He could have started rookie Okaro White, who has played in just 31 games, or veteran Udonis Haslem, who has not played in more than two months.
But Johnson has been one of the Heat’s most consistent performers all season despite never having made a start until Wednesday. He’s a versatile 6-foot-8 who can handle the ball, shoot the three, attack the rim and violently throw down a dunk. He also can guard every player on the court.
Sound like somebody who once wore a Heat uniform and helped take the team to four NBA Finals and two titles?
If you are thinking LeBron James you are right.
I’m not saying Johnson is LeBron. But he is LeBron Light.
But for 77 games this season and the 71 Johnson had appeared in, Spoelstra resisted the temptation to move the black belt, jack-of-all trades forward into the starting lineup. Sticking instead with the spark he was giving the second until and the chemistry he and Tyler Johnson had coming off the bench, two players who also have developed a close bond off the court.
But, as Spoelstra said, it is “go time,” and the Heat were going nowhere if they continued to play as they did their previous two games, both disappointing home losses that caused Miami to fall to the ninth seed in the East.
The move made so much sense.
“He wanted me to start,” Johnson said. “I know the guys have my back. I know they felt comfortable with the decision and just went out there and rocked it from there.”
So how did Johnson repay his coach: With 26 points, matching his season high, four rebounds, three assists, two steals. He took 12 shots, making all but two, including 6-of-7 on 3 pointers as the Heat set a franchise mark with 21 threes.
“He was terrific and it’s not just his shots because that won’t necessarily happen every game,” Spoelstra said. “It’s his willingness to accept whatever role.
“We don’t have time to mess around. We’ve dealt with so many different starting lineups. Different rotations. Guys understand and they’re able to step up and not look at you crazy. If I told JJ to come off the bench in Toronto he would do it and say ‘OK what do you need me to do?’ That’s what you like about him.”
Now, with four games remaining and the Heat seemingly slipping in and out the playoffs every day (Miami entered Thursday in a three-way tie with Chicago and Indiana for the Nos. 7 through 9 spots and holding onto No. 8 after all the tie breakers) there is only one move remaining for Spoelstra.
Keep Johnson in the starting lineup.
Ready or not, Babbitt’s days as the starting power forward should be over.
The Heat’s schedule is daunting, starting Friday night at the Raptors, Johnson’s old team, and moving on to Washington Saturday before finishing with home games against Cleveland and Washington.
Miami likely has to split those four to have a chance for the playoffs and one way to increase those chances is to have Johnson team with Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Co. at the start of the game.
I asked Dragic what it was like having Johnson make an impact from the jump.
“He’s always impactful,” Dragic said. “If he’s coming from the bench or if he’s starting we know JJ is going to be ready. He gives us something different than Luke and gives us that toughness we need.”