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Iso Joe Johnson Isn't a Joke Anymore; He's the Playoffs' Perfect Weapon

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterApril 26, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 25: Joe Johnson #6 of the Utah Jazz handles the ball against the LA Clippers in Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on April 25, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — It was a matter of pride and principle.

Little practical purpose was being served by how hard Chris Paul and Joe Johnson were pushing and leaning on each other Tuesday night. But back and forth they went, as if they belonged in a sumo wrestling ring. Referee Ron Garretson hustled in with his arms flapping for a truce because the ball wasn't even close to being inbounded. Still, the two veterans wouldn't stop fighting for position.

Only 14.6 seconds remained in what would become a 96-92 Utah playoff victory over Paul's crumbling Los Angeles Clippers. And while the duel did little in the end for the Clippers but illustrate how Paul will always be the sort to scrap to the very end, it also showed that when it comes to getting to his spot on the floor, Johnson might have no equal in this league.

You can joke about the "Iso Joe" nickname that Johnson abhors because it connotes he's not a team player. Yet when he is getting the ball in isolation or in a group set piece, he is completely focused as a professional scorer.

"Pro Joe" isn't nearly as cute to say, but it's more accurate.

Johnson is unwavering in his determination to get to a place on the court where he knows he has made countless shots alone in practice. He also is well versed in where double-team help can be exploited from those favorite spots. Do your work early and it's all just so much easier for you.

"I've got to make a play," Johnson said in the moments after he helped the Jazz secure a 3-2 series lead Tuesday. "That's the only thing that goes through my mind."

It's such a simple thing, but it's invaluable in the slowed-down, mostly half-court game where the playoff opponent knows all your plays and preferences. This is why a gifted wing player is the trump card in today's NBA deck after so many historic seasons of point guards and centers as kings.

The size and steps to create a makeable shot for yourself or your teammates is the most valuable asset in the postseason game. It's a pick-and-roll era, but it's still a make-or-miss league.

And Joe Johnson, with the everyday name and the money-first reputation, fits this profile almost perfectly, especially because a longtime shooting guard is a viable stretch power forward now. And the spots he can get to are still as sweet.

Johnson did it again Tuesday, and it was noticeable how unremarkable it already feels.

Gordon Hayward scored 27 and Rodney Hood drilled some big shots, but down the stretch it was the 35-year-old Johnson doing what he does, maneuvering in for a 13-foot jumper with 19 seconds left to ice the game for Utah.

His signing with the Jazz last July was hardly a big deal. If anything, it was noticed only because Johnson chose a bigger payday (two years, $22 million) instead of sacrificing money for a more obvious title-chasing opportunity after the historic cash flow of his career.

And with the Jazz now on the brink of a second-round matchup with Golden State, it is clear Johnson is exactly what Paul needs on the capped-out Clippers, who've sputtered in past playoffs because of injuries but also because they lack a two-way wing threat. Blake Griffin has grown his game, though not into a LeBron James/Kevin Durant/Kawhi Leonard kind of beast, and now he's hurt again.

That's the way it is for guys identified as the main men on teams: this, but that. This is great to have, but that is still missing. We quibble over their details all season long and dissect their deficiencies for most of their careers.

Johnson knows this well. It got to a point where all his this was overshadowed by all his that: that salary, that quiet demeanor falling short of strong leadership, that uninspiring and even boring game.

Put it in the context of a role player, however, and...wow.

He gives you such versatility, poise and durability. For a young Utah team, his experience has been invaluable in the first Jazz playoff series since 2012.

Hayward is getting near stardom, but he's in his first playoff series. Rudy Gobert had a breakthrough season at center for the Jazz, but his individual offense remains largely rudimentary.

Johnson's efficiency has been so clear in the playoffs that it even comes through via old-school statistical metrics: 18.2 points per game, 1.2 turnovers per game, 53.4 percent field-goal shooting.

He's also playing nearly 32 minutes per game, which could be heard in the old-man groans by his locker late Tuesday night and his adamant request that the training staff find a pair of therapeutic compression tights for him to wear under his suit slacks.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT - APRIL 23: Joe Johnson #6 of the Utah Jazz tries to drive past the defense of Luc Mbah a Moute #12 of the Los Angeles Clippers in the second half of the 105-98 win by the Jazz in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

But none of this production comes as a surprise to peers such as Paul, James or Kobe Bryant, who long admired Johnson for having the very same sort of formidable scoring fundamentals.

This is simply what Joe Johnson does when he goes about his business.

At least for the moment, we're no longer hung up on the other stuff. A seven-time All-Star, but not a real superstar. A 20,000-point scorer, but likely not a Hall of Famer.

He's just a role player, and he's killing it in his role.

And now that we aren't demanding more from him, we see much better what we are getting.

He's just so good at what he does, and he always was.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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