Joe Johnson Must Raise His Play for Hawks and Himself
Both he, and the Atlanta Hawks, are running out of time. And at this point, he is nowhere close -- and he knows it.
Johnson has been the unquestioned leader of the Atlanta Hawks for the past few years -- the biggest reason for their rise in stature -- and he has taken them into this best-of-seven, second-round Eastern Conference matchup against the Orlando Magic.
But he also was the reason they unexpectedly struggled against mediocre Milwaukee in the first round, and the biggest reason they looked so awful in Game 1 against the Magic.
"I'm responsible when we play like this. I'll take that. I'm the one who's supposed to do something about it,'' Johnson told FanHouse Wednesday after practice. "If I can't play any better than I have, then we're probably not going to win.''
The Hawks play Game 2 Thursday, desperate for Johnson to raise his level of play, giving them their only real chance against the deeper, stronger Magic.
Johnson, their versatile, 6-7 shooting guard, turned down a four-year, $60 million contract extension last summer, preferring to become an unrestricted free agent in 2010, believing he could be among the handful of NBA stars who would warrant one of those maximum salaried contracts that will range from $96 to $120 million.
Yet to be paid like a superstar, he'll have to play like a superstar when it counts -- in the playoffs -- where the stars are expected to shine, something he hasn't done yet.
"I've spent too much time trying to make sure everyone else gets involved,'' he said. "I just have to be more aggressive myself. I have to be aggressive from the start. I think you'll see something different this next game.''
During the regular season, Johnson played in his fourth consecutive All-Star Game, and averaged better than 20 points for the fifth consecutive season. He shot 45.8 percent from the field. He averaged 4.9 assists and 4.6 rebounds, along with 21.3 points. And he usually guarded the opponent's best perimeter player.
Yet strangely, he has disappeared offensively in the last four games. The Hawks survived the scare against Milwaukee not because of Johnson, but more because of the consistency of center Al Horford and the rise of Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford.
Johnson managed just eight points and four assists in Game 7 against Milwaukee. He scored only 10 points Monday in the 43-point Game 1 debacle when it looked like Atlanta had no business being in the playoffs. More than anyone, he was embarrassed. It was his team, his loss.
It was Johnson who called out his teammates early in that first series for their lack of effort, but he didn't exactly back up his words.
In the last four games -- spanning the Bucks and Magic -- he has averaged 13.2 points and made only 22 of 65 field goal attempts. He hit only two of his 14 shots from 3-point range.
"He's in a slump, and we've got to get him out of the slump,'' Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said after practice. "I'll never count out Joe, never. He's getting his shots, but they just haven't fallen.''
Woodson tried Wednesday not to put the burden of the team on Johnson's shoulders, but it clearly is. It comes with the territory, especially with a free agent expecting to earn a star's contract in free agency this summer.
Dwyane Wade in Miami was knocked out in the first round, but he went out with a blaze of glory, averaging 33 points and proving again how good he really is. Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas also lost in the first round, but he still scored 26.7 points per game.
Soon-to-be free agents Carlos Boozer and Amar'e Stoudemire have averaged 21.9 and 20.9 points, respectively, while taking their teams into the second round. All have helped their values in these playoffs.
Johnson has curiously raised some doubts, which he could erase easily if he can turn this series into a competitive one. Getting swept will hurt his value.
Asked Wednesday if the outcome of this series will influence his decision on where he will play next season, he nodded affirmatively.
"Of course it will. Definitely,'' he said.