Of all the NBA’s players who’re difficult to analyze yet don’t deserve to be analyzed in the first place, Joe Johnson might be the most notorious example in league history. When you mix in six straight All-Star games, one of the worst cap-crippling contracts of all time, the disappointing inability to drag his team beyond the second round of the playoffs, and a versatile offensive skill set that’s still powerful enough to take over games on a whim, what you get is an uber-confusing, unpredictable individual. If you were to ask three people to rate Joe Johnson on a scale of overrated, underrated, or properly rated, you could easily get three separate answers.
There’s one thing, however, that we can’t dispute once Atlanta and Boston begin their showdown Sunday night: Joe Johnson is a major threat. In this tightly wound season of statistical dark clouds, Johnson posted his highest true shooting percentage in five years, and the second highest of his 11-year career. But despite Atlanta’s previous ownership group stubbornly tagging him as the one player who could eventually lead them to a championship, his minutes have gradually gone down over the past four years, along with his points per game and usage percentage. When we look at how Atlanta’s offense fared this season, the Hawks scored 5.5 more points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the floor, third highest on the team behind Jeff Teague and Josh Smith (Teague and Smith also played more minutes than Johnson this season.) So is Johnson really Atlanta’s best player, or just a single-coverage afterthought?
This brings us to the article’s main focus: What can the Celtics expect from Johnson? And how will they go about stopping him? Well reputed throughout his career as a shooting guard, the Hawks have started Joe Johnson at small forward in 25 games this season (he’s spent 21% of his total playing time at the position, according to 82games.com), shifting Kirk Hinrich to the two guard and placing Marvin Williams on the bench. When he’s playing small forward, Johnson is quick enough to either blow by his man or curl off screens and take free spot up jumpers as he eludes slower defenders.
But as a shooting guard is where he really shines. Matched up against smaller defenders (Johnson stands at a surprisingly long 6’8″—four inches taller than Dwyane Wade) Johnson does as he pleases in the post, where he’s extremely comfortable. For all the criticism we give traditional perimeter players like LeBron James for failing to develop an offensive attack with their back to the basket, Joe Johnson can not be included in the discussion. His work in the post is beyond legit.
This season he shot 53.6% and was the 11th most efficient scorer in post-up situations, according to Synergy. It’s an area the Celtics would be well practiced to avoid, and when the Hawks bring Marvin Williams off the bench or Paul Pierce is battling possible foul trouble, the Celtics will be forced to counter by bringing in Mickael Pietrus or Ray Allen (if healthy) with duties to guard Johnson. This is where Pietrus is most handy, but it could take Avery Bradley off the court. It’s an interesting chess match, and while I don’t think the Celtics have to worry about it TOO much, given the way they guard individuals with all five of their guys, they still need to pay attention to Johnson, a player who can still take over a game with a 35-40 point effort.
Here’s a clip of Johnson showing what he can do in the post. The first move is against the much shorter Delonte West. Johnson backs him down and scores easily as a double team comes too late. The second is against the 6’7″ Landry Fields, and instead of bullying him all the way down to the basket, he calmly steps back and drains a fade away jumper.
Here’s Pietrus fronting Johnson in the post, simultaneously disallowing him to get comfortable and making it difficult for Marvin Williams to lob something over the top. Sensing that’s what the Hawks are trying to do, Brandon Bass lingers on the baseline ready to slide over and shut down any space of operation should Johnson even catch the risky entry pass. Williams gives the ball to a cutting Zaza Pachulia at the foul line which opens up the floor for Atlanta’s offensive options. Primarily what it does is force Bass closer to his man, Josh Smith, who’s “posing as a threat” 15 feet from the basket on the baseline. Bass shifts out of the paint and Zaza slides a bounce pass to the well-positioned Johnson for the easy lay up.
And here’s Johnson working Bradley in the post. he gets off a pretty good shot that will go down more times than not if the Celtics don’t bring a man to double in that situation.
More than two Celtics will spend significant time guarding Johnson throughout the series, but the man who will start and end the game on him will probably be Pierce. Judging from the on/off court numbers provided by NBA.com, whether or not Pierce is guarding him doesn’t seem to change Joe Johnson’s mentality as to how he’d like to attack the basket. However, it does make him less effective. When the two shared the court this season (a majority of which saw Pierce guarding him) Johnson shot 44.8% from the field. With Pierce on the bench, leaving the task up to a pu pu platter of Celtics defenders such as Pietrus, Bradley, Sasha Pavlovic, and Allen, Johnson shot 52.2% from the floor. Unfortunately, Pierce can’t defend Johnson for the entire game, due to the foul issue and the fact that he’s a human being, and human beings tend to get tired.
Despite him being the scariest player Atlanta has, Joe Johnson isn’t good enough to receive a “you can only hope to contain him” level of respect. With the personnel Boston has, they should realistically aim to eliminate as much of Johnson from Atlanta’s offensive game plan as possible. If that happens, the rest should take care of itself.