TORONTO – One of the truly impressive characteristics of this Brooklyn Nets team is that every player has seemingly had his 15 minutes of fame.
Kevin Garnett, with his very presence in training camp, changed the mindset of this team from talented to tenacious.
Brook Lopez was playing the best basketball of his career before suffering a broken bone in his foot.
Deron Williams and Paul Pierce took their game to new levels after the All-Star break.
Shaun Livingston has been one of the feel-great stories in all of sports. Marcus Thornton was a great addition. Alan Anderson has epitomized the role of teammate. Andray Blatche allowed coach Jason Kidd to manage Garnett’s minutes. Mason Plumlee emerged as a draft-day steal.
Through it all, in his low-key way, Joe Johnson has been the rock.
He was the player Kidd leaned on early when injuries tore through this team. He was the player Kidd decided would be the go-to guy in late-game situations and Johnson never failed to deliver.
KG nicknamed him Joe Jesus.
Ask Phoenix. Ask Memphis. Ask Oklahoma City. Ask Dallas.
And now we can add Toronto to the list of teams that Johnson has made a believer of.
It was the Raptors inability to handle Johnson one-on-one that forced them to double on the 6-7, 240-pound swingman, creating open looks for Pierce, Williams, Livingston and Garnett in the Nets 94-87 win Saturday afternoon in the Air Canada Centre in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series.
“I don’t care about statistics,’’ said Johnson. “I care about winning. I’ll do whatever this team needs to win.’’
Johnson did it all in Game 1.
He had 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field and 8-of-8 from the line, matching Williams for the team lead in scoring. He grabbed eight rebounds, matching Garnett for the team lead in boards. He played a game-high 44 minutes and 30 seconds. He added four assists and two steals.
He combined with Livingston to frustrate Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan into a 3-for-13 shooting night. DeRozan went 0-for-5 in the second half.
It isn’t a stretch to imagine Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff spending a lot of Easter Sunday thinking of ways to stop Johnson in Tuesday night’s Game 2 in Toronto.
“Joe doesn’t draw a lot of attention to himself but everyone in this league knows what he can do,’’ said Anderson. “He’s a pro.’’
There were several times in Saturday’s game when one could see Johnson literally think his way to a basket. He’d pin a Toronto defender on his hip and probe to the basket, ready to pass if help defense came, or loft one of his cotton-soft shots through the rim.
After the final horn sounded, the Nets brought Williams and Pierce to the interview room, an understandable decision.
Pierce scored nine of his 15 points in the final three minutes. Williams, with a team-high 20 shot attempts, and great defense on Kyle Lowry (22 points on 7-of-18 shooting, five turnovers), played a more audacious game than Johnson.
Johnson quietly did the heavy lifting.
He made his name in this league as a scorer but has willingly given up shots to complement the balanced offense Kidd prefers. In a season in which the Nets were besieged by injury, Johnson missed only three of 82 games, the last of which when Kidd opted to rest his starters.
“As a coach, Joe makes this game easy,’’ said Kidd. “He does whatever you ask of him. He comes to work every day. He’s as low maintenance as they come.’’