MIAMI – For one of the few times this season we saw James Johnson in a situation that had become routine for him late last season.
The game was winding down Monday and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra put the ball in the versatile forward’s hands. Johnson could not convert at the end of the first overtime, running into three Denver Nuggets at the basket. But Johnson did not let that deter him.
By the end of Miami’s 149-141 overtime victory, Johnson had a career-high 31 points, including a franchise record for points in overtime, 18 (10 in the second overtime). He shot 13 of 17, was 4 of 6 on threes and had 11 rebounds and six assists.
Johnson’s 46:15 of playing time were 49 seconds shy of his career high.
“He was doing it from every angle on the floor, shooting threes, he had midrange, he was getting to the cup, (getting) and ones, strong finishes,” Wayne Ellington said. “That’s the type of guy he’s capable of being. We know that.”
But the guy we saw last season – the one who played himself into a four year, $60 million contract and was so inspiring he was voted a team tri-captain despite just one season in the organization – has been missing for most of this season.
Although his numbers are not far off from last season – the biggest drop is scoring, 12.8 to 10.6 – something has been missing.
At times, Johnson appeared to lose confidence, passing up open shots. He has not been as aggressive getting to the basket. Although he has increased his shooting percentage from, .479 to .501, he is taking nearly two fewer shots per game. And the 6-foot-8 Johnson has been wildly inconsistent with seven games of at least 20 points and 10 with fewer than five.
Johnson had just five games with fewer than five points last season, four of those in the first month.
“I think maybe he puts a little bit too much pressure on himself especially when he signed the deal,” said Goran Dragic, also a team tri-captain. “I went through that, too, so I can relate to that. The team, the fans, they’re expecting more. We always told him, ‘Hey, be yourself.’ Because when he’s playing with a confidence like (Monday), it’s really tough to stop us and him.”
Johnson has downplayed his struggles, saying Monday he’s “just worried about what matters,” which, to him, is “just trying not to let my guy score, being in the help position, where I’m supposed to be. The offense is going to take care of itself.”
But Spoelstra believes Johnson has been “trending” in the right direction lately and the numbers have suggested as much.
In his last five games, Johnson is averaging 17.8 points on .667 shooting with 7.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists.
“If nobody’s noticing, fine,” Spoelstra said. “We keep it that way around the league. That locker room knows that he’s been playing great. He’s been providing the leadership, consistency and it has nothing to do with stats. (Monday) it was scoring, but the next game it might be the Swiss Army knife game, where he’s getting eight assists, eight rebounds, and generating a lot of looks with his ballhandling, and continuing to defend one through five.”
Johnson had played a steady, unspectacular game through regulation with 13 points before that unspectacular turned spectacular.
He scored eight of the Heat’s first 11 points of the first overtime, helping send the game into a second extra session.
The best was yet to come.
After Ellington opened the second overtime with a 3-pointer, Johnson took over scoring the next 10 Heat points on two drives (one resulting in a dunk) and two three pointers. The final two came with 53 seconds to play and gave Miami an eight-point lead, essentially sealing the game.
Johnson credited Spoelstra showing confidence in him by putting the ball in his hands at the end of the first overtime for sparking his outburst in the final five minutes.
“It just kept flowing from there,” Johnson said. “The ball finds energy and guys were doing a great job of (finding) guys that were really on fire like Kelly Olynyk, Dragon, Wayne.
“I just happened to be open. The guys happened to find me and I just took the shots I happen to work on every day.”
The Heat (38-33) have 11 games remaining starting Thursday when they host the Knicks (26-45). Miami, at No. 7, has a solid grip on a playoff spot but is just three games out of the fourth seed and has set its sights on having home court in the first round.
And a rejuvenated JJ could go a long way toward making that happen.
“I kept saying, ‘This is the JJ I know,’” Ellington said. “Every time he was getting a bucket, ‘This is the JJ I know.’
“He’s the ultimate team guy. He’ll continue to be aggressive. He’ll also be the type of team player, that’s his package.”