NEW YORK -- By the end of last season, Joe Johnson had become “Decoy Joe,” the plantar fasciitis in his left foot having significantly worsened, robbing him of his ability to play basketball at a high level in a do-or-die Game 7.
“It was tough, man,” Johnson said, harking back to his six-point, 2-for-14 shooting performance in 38 minutes on May 4. The Brooklyn Nets were eliminated on their home court by the Chicago Bulls, losing 99-93.
“I know what I’m capable of doing, and I couldn’t lift the team in any form or fashion,” Johnson continued. “That’s probably the most frustrating thing.”
But heading into his second playoffs with the Nets, the man Kevin Garnett refers to as Joe Jesus because of his prowess in the clutch is mostly injury-free -- and ready to make a huge impact.
“Obviously, this is a different time for us as Brooklyn Nets because of the players we have and we’re going into the postseason healthy,” Johnson said. “And me not playing on one leg is gonna make a big difference.”
Johnson enjoyed an All-Star campaign in 2013-14, averaging a team-best 15.8 points and shooting 45.4 percent (40.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark of his career) in 79 games.
The 32-year-old veteran knocked down 162 3-pointers (second most in team history), hit two game-winning buzzer-beaters -- his second on Jan. 2 in Oklahoma City turned the season around -- and scored 29 points in the third quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 16. The Nets went 15-5 in games in which he scored 20 or more points.
“He’s carried the load for us all year,” Nets coach Jason Kidd said.
In 2012-13, Johnson was heavily counted on to provide scoring. But this season, his role changed a bit. Johnson, known for his ability to deliver in isolation sets, averaged just 12.9 shots in 2013-14 -- his lowest since 2002-03.
“I think we’ve all had to sacrifice a little bit for the betterment of the team,” Johnson said. “We’ve done that. I think in this postseason we’re not gonna try to come out and do anything that we haven’t been doing. We’re gonna continue to play together, play hard and keep sacrificing so we can keep moving along.”
Perhaps the biggest key to Johnson’s success was his willingness to buy into Kidd’s system from the beginning. In the absence of Brook Lopez (season-ending foot injury), Johnson has become one of the team’s main threats in the post, using his size (6-foot-7, 240 pounds) either to take advantage of smaller guards or facilitate the offense and get one of his teammates an easy basket.
“It didn’t take me long; I’m an easy-going kind of guy,” Johnson said. “If you’re gonna tell me something that’s gonna help us out, then I’m willing to do it.”
For all the talk about Johnson's never living up to the massive six-year, $119 million contract he received from the Atlanta Hawks in 2010, or how he can’t be relied on as a No. 1 option, the native of Little Rock, Ark., has emerged as arguably the best late-game player in the entire NBA.
Over the last two seasons, in the final minute of games in which the Nets were tied or trailing by three points or fewer, Johnson is 13 for 16 from the field with four game-winning buzzer-beaters.
Hence the nickname: Joe Jesus.
“He might not be there when you call on him, but he’s there when you need him,” Garnett said.
The Nets were 10-21 when Johnson’s behind-the-back fadeaway jumper beat the Thunder. They have gone 34-17 since.
"What year was that? 2014? That was a good year,” Kidd joked. “I think that's just Joe. You go back to the Phoenix game [on Nov. 15]. He drove the length of the court, made the floater [to win the game at the buzzer]. There was no emotion. It was just: The game is over. Let's go get ready to play the Clippers.
“Most guys like to a dance, most guys like to celebrate, but Joe just moves on. When Joe made that shot, it was just everybody expected him to make it. And he delivered. And he loves that stage, and that's something we can lean on in the playoffs. I think it kinda kick-started our season."
Johnson put the team on his back during a stretch in mid-January; became the first Net in five years to win Eastern Conference Player of the Week in late March; and closed out the regular season by averaging 18.2 points and 50.2 percent shooting in his last 18 games.
“Last year was fun, but I think this year has been a bit more special because of where we started to where we’ve gotten to now,” Johnson said.
Johnson has played in 69 career playoff games, averaging 16.7 points and 41.4 percent shooting. But he’s never appeared in an NBA Finals before.
The sixth-seeded Nets, who will face the third-seeded Toronto Raptors in the first round (Game 1 is Saturday), certainly aren’t the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference, but given their dominance over the Miami Heat and the way the Indiana Pacers sputtered down the stretch, who knows. They’re certainly better equipped to get there this season than they were a year ago.
“I would say so,” Johnson said. “I think because we got the experience and guys have been through the trenches of the playoffs to help us get to where we’re trying to get to, so I think we have what it takes to be the last team standing.”