Joe Johnson ended the "Battle of New York" the same way he started it: with an exclamation point.
Johnson, who said back in July that his Brooklyn Nets were the best team in the city, drained the game-winning 16-foot pull-up jumper from the right baseline with 22.3 seconds left, allowing the Nets to even their season series with the New York Knicks on Monday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
"Yeah, [we're still better than the Knicks], that's the way I feel, man," Johnson said after scoring 10 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter of Brooklyn’s 88-85 victory over New York. "That's not gonna change."
After beating the Knicks in the first-ever matchup between the East River rivals, the Nets dropped the next two, prompting Johnson to say, “We owe them.
“They’ve beaten us twice, so we definitely want to come out and try to make a statement,” he said.
Did they ever.
Johnson, who came in averaging 13.7 points on 37.5 percent shooting in the first three meetings between the two teams, scored 11 in the first quarter. But he proceeded to miss his next eight shots.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, at a time the Nets needed him the most, their $89 million closer found his range and notched yet another key save. Johnson had eight straight points -- including two 3-pointers -- midway through the final period to keep the Knicks at bay.
His 16-footer with 5:37 remaining gave Brooklyn an 83-77 lead. But New York countered with seven straight points, going in front on Carmelo Anthony’s only two points of the fourth -- a pair of free throws with 40.9 seconds left.
Guarded by J.R. Smith about 30 feet from the basket on the right side, Johnson worked the ball between his legs around the 3-point arc before gaining separation with a right-handed power dribble. He elevated, fading away as he drained the jumper to put the Nets back on top to stay.
“In those moments down the stretch, I love having the ball in my hands where I can make a play,” he said.
“I had no clue what my role was gonna be,” said Johnson, who was acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in a blockbuster trade. “I was just ecstatic to be part of this franchise. I just kind of got thrown into it.”
Why has he been so clutch?
“Just confidence,” said Johnson, who finished 8-for-20 from the field, 5-for-8 from 3-point range and added five assists and three rebounds. “You gotta take that shot as if it were the first shot of the game. Like I said, man. It’s all about confidence and believing in yourself.”
Interim coach P.J. Carlesimo is glad to have Johnson on his side.
“That’s Joe Johnson. He’s a heckuva player. He’s a money player. He’s been a money player his entire career,” Carlesimo said. “We all feel very comfortable when Joe’s got the ball in the first quarter.
“He’s a very tough cover for almost anybody, and he wants the ball in big situations. Not everybody is comfortable in those situations. Michael [Jordan] always used to say that all the time, 'People forget the ones you miss.' [Joe] wants it, and he’s willing to take it at a big time.”
Even better, he makes them, too.
“It’s always great to play here in the Garden,” Johnson said. “They’ve got the most passionate fans, and just to be a part of New York is definitely a blessing and a dream come true. We just want to make the most of it.”
At the halfway mark, the Nets (25-16) are on pace for 50 wins. They trail the Knicks (25-14) by just one game in the Eastern Conference standings. But the two teams won’t meet again -- unless they face one another in the playoffs.
“I’m sure it did,” Johnson replied when asked if the rivalry lived up to the hype. “I mean, you’ve got two teams in New York, and we wanna be the top dog. They wanna be the top dog. It’s a battle. We split. We’ll see what happens next.”