MIAMI – Being confined to a plane for seven hours typically isn’t very productive.
But for Tyler Johnson, it may have played a part in turning around his season.
Johnson accompanied Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem on the flight to Los Angeles for All-Star Weekend and had a candid conversation with the Heat’s two elder statesmen. Johnson spoke with the two 15-year veterans for much of the flight, mostly about Johnson’s game, his approach to the break and the final two months of the season.
“It was just good to reassess what was important and what things I should be doing, what I shouldn’t be doing,” Johnson said.
The 6-foot-4 Johnson was in a funk. In 11 games prior to Saturday since returning from an ankle injury that forced him to miss five games, he averaged 9.7 points while shooting just 39 percent. That was due partly to settling for long jump shots. Johnson had taken 100 shots in those games, nearly half (49) being 3-pointers.
Then, somewhere over the Lower Mississippi Valley, or perhaps the High Plains, Wade, who Johnson calls ‘my boss,’ told his protégé to be himself.
“When a team changes a little bit a guy’s role may change a little bit,” said Wade, who played with Johnson for two seasons before Wade left for Chicago in the summer of 2016. “I think last year he really loved him and (James Johnson) playing together. This year they’re not playing together. It may have affected him a little bit mentally because he had a great connection.
“He’s a big part of what this team is made of. He’s a tough guy who can get up and down, plays above the rim, also can shoot outside. So, his game has really developed and this team needs it. Needs Tyler to be aggressive like that and play his game.”
Goran Dragic agreed.
“He’s at his best when he attacks,” Dragic said.
That aggressiveness was on display during Saturday’s 115-89 victory over Memphis. Johnson scored a game-high 23 points, his most since scoring 31 on Dec. 30 in Orlando. He was 6 of 12 from the floor and five of those attempts (41.7 percent) were from five feet or less.
“I think part of it was just my mindset coming into the game,” Johnson said. “It’s more just settling, stop catching the ball without your feet and make sure that I can get myself in rhythm and it gets other people in rhythm because if somebody comes over to help.
Of Johnson’s 100 shots in his previous 11 games, just 26 were within five feet of the rim.
“He was so aggressive and he was like a blur going to the rim,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “That’s the Tyler we saw before the injury.
“He probably needed that All-Star break as much as anybody just to have those days off and let his body rest.”
Spoelstra said Johnson looked refreshed and “very much like how he looked in training camp and before the injury” during the two practices following the break.
Johnson, who has taken over the starting shooting guard spot for all but three games since mid-December, welcomed the break as much mentally as physically. He did not touch a basketball during the six days the Heat were off before returning to practice, which is unusual for him.
“It was more for my mind,” he said. “It was more of a good thing to just get away, enjoy time with family, enjoy watching my teammates do what they do. I was out there in L.A. for a little bit.
“Usually when I go through a stretch where I’m not playing well I try to put it into overdrive and kind of will it. (Wade and Haslem) were telling me to kind of just get away and clear my mind.”
Johnson was injured on Jan. 15 when Chicago’s Robin Lopez landed on the back of his left foot. He sat out five games but still felt soreness leading up to the All-Star break. Perhaps getting to the basket so often and taking nine free throws (he made them all), which is three more than any other game this season and one shy of his career high, is a sign that Johnson his healing – both physically and mentally.
“I just had to take a long look at myself over the break … what was working, what wasn’t working,” Johnson said. “I think before the break I was just settling for too many jumpers, trying to shoot my way out of a funk instead of doing what I do best, which is being an attacker and getting other people involved.”