Johnson scored a game-high 29 points on 11-of-15 shooting to lead the Nets to a comfortable 127-110 win over the Atlanta Hawks in a special game played in London. The win continues Brooklyn's astonishing 2014 turnaround, per ESPN Stats.
Nets are now 6-1 since January 1st. No other team in the NBA has a better record than the Nets in 2014.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 16, 2014
The Nets owe their 2014 resurgence to many factors—the return of Andrei Kirilenko from his back injury and the improved play of Kevin Garnett chiefly among them. But those are only recent developments. In the rush to analyze how the Nets have risen, it's important to remember the one constant this season.
And that constant has been Johnson. He doesn't lead the Nets in points per game—that honor belongs to center Brook Lopez, who has already been lost for the season after undergoing foot surgery. But Johnson does lead the Nets in total points, as well as total minutes and made field goals.
For Johnson, the most important number is 37—as in 37 games played. Johnson has only missed one game this season, fewest among Nets starters. Only reserve guard Alan Anderson has played more.
It's that consistency, in a year where nearly everything has gone wrong, that has made Joe Johnson perhaps the most valuable Net in 2013-14.
The Overlooked Net Steps Up
Following the offseason trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, Johnson may have been the most overlooked member of the Nets' powerhouse starting five.
Point guard Deron Williams was expected to be the team's best player. At age 25, Lopez was by far their youngest starter, the player with the most upside. And Pierce and Garnett had the championship pedigree from their days with the Boston Celtics.
That left Johnson as the odd man out. At age 32, he was still a good player, but his play had become nearly impossible to separate from his albatross of a contract.
That six-year, $124 million contract was negotiated by the Hawks but was unloaded on Brooklyn in a ridiculously shortsighted 2012 trade. Now the Nets are on the hook for the final years of Johnson's contract, which runs through the 2015-16 season ($23 million in 2014-15, $25 million in 2015-16). Worse, the Nets gave Atlanta the right to swap picks with Brooklyn in 2014 and 2015.
That was a terrible deal to be sure, but Johnson has done everything in his power to ensure the Nets don't have to give Atlanta a lottery pick in 2014. Not only has he been the one constant in a starting lineup racked with injury, he has won multiple games with clutch buzzer-beaters, like this one to beat the Thunder on Jan. 2.
Johnson's play has been the primary reason the 16-22 Nets have been able to outperform their expected win-loss record by two games, according to Basketball Reference.
The Joe Johnson Method
In a way, Thursday's win was more a reflection of Joe Johnson's style of play than how the Nets would prefer to play. The team that paid big money to bring in defensive stalwarts like Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko gave up 110 points to Atlanta on 49.4-percent shooting...but still won big.
They did it by bombing away from behind the arc, shooting 16-of-27 from three. And the three-point parade was led by Johnson, who hit six of his eight threes.
A 6-for-8 performance from three might be a season high for some shooters, but it only makes the top three for Johnson in 2013-14. Johnson hit eight threes in a Nov. 24 loss to Detroit and tied an NBA record with eight threes in the third quarter of a Dec. 16 win against Philadelphia.
The Johnson method—threes, threes and more threes—might not be ideal for Brooklyn, but nothing has worked out the way the Nets have wanted this season.
The 2012-13 Nets were by no means a defensive powerhouse—finishing 17th in the league in defensive efficiency—but they were light years better than the current team. Coming into Thursday, the Nets ranked a paltry 28th in defensive rating. A defense that ranks only third from the bottom won't win a lot of games, unless you can score.
The Nets might be able to turn their defense around if Kirilenko can stay healthy and Garnett can continue to drink from the Fountain of Youth. They could rise even higher in the standings if Deron Williams returns and can stay clear of the ankle problems which have plagued him this year. And if that happens, the early-season contributions of Joe Johnson might fade into a distant memory.
It shouldn't. Johnson has been a rock for Brooklyn this season. He's not the best player on this team, but he has been the most valuable.