Paul Pierce dominated the first-round headlines for the Brooklyn Nets with a Game 1 flurry of late jumpers and a memorable Game 7 block. But in the second round, against the mighty Miami Heat, it will be his equally alliterative teammate Joe Johnson who will be the key to the series.
First, let's take a look at postseason statistics, some standard some advanced, just to introduce the candidates for Brooklyn's most important player.
|Player||Minutes per Game||Points per Game||Player Efficiency Rating||True Shooting Percentage||Defensive Rating|
Johnson provides an impressive combination of volume and efficiency. He saw by far the most playing time of any Net, averaging almost five more minutes per game than his next closest teammate.
But such high usage didn't cut into his productivity, as Johnson still managed to log a better PER and true shooting percentage than the other three listed players. Sure his defense lagged a little at 113 points per 100 possessions, but his teammates weren't significantly better in that respect.
Plus, a peek at Johnson's Game 7 fourth quarter alone is evidence enough of his importance to this team. At one point in the final period, Johnson scored 11 straight points, providing the offensive heartbeat Brooklyn needed to keep the Toronto Raptors from eating into its lead.
Toronto threw different defenders at Johnson each time down the floor, but Joe Cool, a nickname he's earned thanks to his crunch-time performance, overpowered each one. His offensive versatility was on full display, as he alternated between pulling up from the perimeter and attacking the basket.
Kevin Garnett, once a playoff linchpin himself, sang Johnson's praises after the game. "Joe kept us alive whole series when we didn't have a hope. He gave us life," Garnett said, via Mike Koreen of the Toronto Sun.
Johnson won't be a difference-maker against Miami simply because he led the Nets over Toronto last week, though. The Raptors failed to contain Johnson in isolation, but the Heat will likely have LeBron James guard him much of the time in the second round.
James' physicality, athleticism and ability to predict his opponents' passes make him a superb defender. He has averaged a fourth-place finish in the Defensive Player of the Year voting in the past three seasons.
Johnson certainly has the capacity to score against Miami, even with James marking him. Watch him in the video below from a regular-season matchup between the two teams. After torching both Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in isolation, Johnson draws the superior James in coverage and still drives right by him for a layup.
Whether Johnson is able to reproduce such an effort remains in question. Brooklyn needs him to convert baskets not only for the obvious scoreboard boost but also to occupy James on defense. If James is busy trying to stay in front of Johnson, then the Nets will have a chance to exploit Miami's undersized players at other positions.
Shane Battier, once a lockdown defender, has logged only two minutes this postseason, meaning that the Heat may have to rely on Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen—6'4" and 6'5", respectively—to cover large Nets forwards with good outside touch, such as Pierce or the sharpshooting Mirza Teletovic. Those guys may be the recipients of kick-out passes by Johnson, who showed his ability to distribute when doubled on Sunday, picking up four assists.
On the other hand, if Johnson goes cold from the field, the Heat might choose to employ James as their defensive chameleon, assigning him to whatever Net has the hot hand.
Breaking down Johnson's defensive contributions is less of a precise science. By the nature of the Nets' fluid defense, Johnson most likely won't find himself locked on a particular opponent during the course of a game.
The Nets' defensive strategy relies heavily on their lengthy perimeter players, who can swap onto most opponents without creating an unfavorable mismatch. This ability to counter the pick-and-roll with consistent switching has been integral to Brooklyn's defensive revival and was a huge factor in its 4-0 record in the season series against the Heat.
So, by that logic, Johnson probably won't guard James exclusively even if the converse is true. But Johnson will still need to contribute on defense. He can't get into foul trouble, as he did in Game 5 against the Raptors, since Brooklyn requires his playmaking ability on offense and length on defense.
He'll also need to help the Nets' bigs down low against Chris Bosh and improve on his underwhelming playoff average of 2.4 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes. Then again, both of those adjustments are teamwide prescriptions for the Nets, who found themselves pushed around in the paint against Toronto.
Not many are predicting the underdog Nets to steal this series from the Heat, who looked in championship form during a first-round sweep. If Brooklyn is to have a shot, Joe Johnson will need to play his best basketball every night.
All statistics from Basketball-Reference.com.