The soft runner down the middle of the paint that won Utah its Game 1 against the Clippers was classic Joe Johnson. Both Johnson and the man defending him, former Hawks teammate Jamal Crawford, had seen this one before: down late in the game, a one-on-one situation followed by a sure-fire bucket. The NBA fan community pledged allegiance to the former All-Star, chirping “ISO JOE” with nostalgia through a medium that was still five years from inception when Johnson entered the league in 2001. The 35-year-old’s final drive, handled by a body a decade past its prime, was almost like a tribute to himself.
We all know how much Johnson favors the iso, but his turning back the hands of time is no isolated incident in these playoffs. Benches with what appear to be throwaway veterans — your Gerald Greens, Nenes, Deron Williamses, even Lance Stephensons — have altered the course of the postseason in their favor … save Lance, who, in the closest sweep by point margin in NBA history, at least kept that series interesting. Add in Fountain of Youth poster children Jamal Crawford and Vince Carter, and these playoffs have been shaped by the past as much as the present and future.
Los Angeles won two straight after Johnson’s Game 1 heroics, but again thanks to him, the Clippers-Jazz series now sits tied 2–2. Game 4 belonged to Johnson, who might as well be the captain of the playoffs’ Old Head Reclamation All-Stars. Just like old times, Johnson put the team squarely on his back with Utah’s two stars reeling: Rudy Gobert made his return on Sunday, but in limited minutes; Gordon Hayward logged only nine minutes in the first half, still suffering from a bout of food poisoning (in the words of Josh Smith: “Can’t eat sushi in Utah, brother — landlocked”), and didn’t return. The Clippers were up 87–80 in the fourth, seemingly on their way to a 3–1 series lead. Then, Joe Jesus: Johnson dropped 13 in the final frame, including 11 straight Jazz points in the span of three minutes, for a lead that the Clippers wouldn’t reclaim for the rest of the night.
The 16-year veteran’s performance was “unbelievable” to Chris Paul, especially Johnson’s knowledge of “how to get to his spots.” It’s the kind of performance that keeps an aging player in 78 games a season, and teams — including Doc Rivers and the Clippers — calling during free agency. That’s why Utah brought Joe in. Last summer, Johnson, in perhaps the seven-time All-Star’s last go at a ring, chose to believe in the Jazz (granted, believing is easier when it entails a two-year, $22 million contract), and passed on the Clippers’ nucleus of Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan. The only thing wilder than Johnson choosing Utah — and it becoming the right decision — is how he’s controlled the series on the team’s behalf.
Or maybe Johnson’s game was always made to last. After dropping 25 in the loss, Crawford gave his former teammate the biggest compliment a veteran (not named Vince Carter) can receive: “His game wasn’t built on athleticism.”
For Green, who replaced Amir Johnson in Boston’s starting lineup after the Celtics opened their series with the Bulls down 0–2, the opposite is true. Outside of Boston, the 31-year-old’s name will always be associated with his dunk contests; inside the city, they’re still thankful for him being a trade piece that made the 2008 championship a reality. Either way, in his second start for Boston since 2007, it was Green’s athleticism that woke up the Celtics in the third quarter after an unrelenting Bulls shot them into a stupor. His 16 first-half points contributed to Chicago’s 20-point deficit early in the second quarter, but a missed 3-point shot in the third quarter mattered more. Green threw up a deep attempt from the left corner. It clanked off the rim, but the rebound bounced favorably back in his direction, so he grabbed the board and reminded everyone what the word “cupcake” meant in the NBA back in his day.
Green’s 18 points in 23 minutes pushed the Celtics to even the series. Brad Stevens couldn’t have won without him, even as Green sat with multiple parts wrapped up in ice toward the end of the game. Let’s check in on Boston:
The Pacers might not be winners, but Stephenson sure is: Lance bought himself a few extra years in the league — and the glowing support of his new teammates.
Nene’s Sunday shot chart was as dotted with makes as his dreads are now peppered with gray, tying a playoff record for the most field goals without a miss. The 34-year-old’s unblemished 12-for-12 gave his new-style Rockets a much-needed old-school bump to douse the fire that is Russell Westbrook’s will.
In a series with Clint Capela scoring less and less with each outing (down to just four points in Game 4), Nene’s reliability in the paint has been a boon. He is shooting 92 percent from the field in the postseason, which currently serves as the highest field goal percentage in NBA playoff history among players with at least 50 minutes and 20 shots attempted. (Next up is Chris Andersen in 2013, a distant second at 81 percent. He was also 34 that year. Shouts to old heads.)
LeBron begged for another playmaker all year, and Williams fit the bill. Williams’s late-season signing with Cleveland was double-edged: The two-time All-NBA player was finally primed for a ring with a roster spot on the defending champs, but at 32, Williams has to grapple daily with being the same age as LeBron, who is still capable of this.
Remember the “Chris Paul or Deron Williams” best-point-guard-in-the-league arguments in comment threads on sites that no longer exist? Of course you don’t; Williams’s prime is excruciatingly far behind him. Still, against a Pacers squad desperate to avoid being the first team in franchise history to be swept in a seven-game series, Williams came through on Sunday. He hit two huge 3-pointers in the second quarter and finished with 14, going four-for-four. He finished the series with only two misses from deep, only three misses overall, and a gig as an opening act on Joe Johnson’s Reclamation Tour.