“The first couple games have been a success,” Johnson said before the team’s game Thursday night. “Obviously we got wins, so that’s the main goal. For me, I’m just coming in and trying to fit in.”
That Johnson, a 34-year-old wing whose scoring numbers have steadily diminished each of the past five seasons, is making a significant impact is somewhat puzzling. He’s long been carped at for hoisting ill-advised jumpers in high volume, while being a minus-defender and a tepid leader in the locker room.
Over the last three games, though, Johnson is pouring in 23.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per 100 possessions. He’s shooting 62.5 percent from beyond the arc and has a true shooting percentage of 70.2. The Heat has the highest net rating (plus-17), third highest offensive rating (113.1 points per 100 possessions) and fifth best defensive rating (96.1 points allowed per 100 possessions) over that stretch.
There are a few reasons for the instant impact: First — and it can’t be divorced from the equation — is his arrival coincided with an entirely new offensive framework, one that Coach Erik Spoelstra is still refining. Second, according to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s essentially playing a new position, logging 40 percent of his total minutes at power forward. With 55 percent of his career minutes being spent at shooting guard, Johnson, who is 6-foot-7, has never finished a season playing more than 27 percent of his minutes at power forward.
With the news that Chris Bosh would be out indefinitely in conjunction with Chris Andersen being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, Spoelstra decided to recalibrate the offense. Fully subscribing to downhill basketball, Spoelstra, at least to start games, has been pairing one traditional big man with four wings and guards. With dynamic 7-footer Hassan Whiteside coming off the bench to pillage opposing second units, the yin-and-yang approach has been alarmingly successful thus far.
Prior to Johnson’s arrival, he trotted out a starting quintet of Goran Dragic-Dwyane Wade-Justise Winslow-Luol Deng-Amar’e Stoudemire, with Gerald Green occasionally taking the place of Winslow. Since Johnson arrived, Spoelstra has plugged him into the starting rotation with Dragic, Wade, Deng and Stoudemire. It’s working, too: The lineup of Dragic-Wade-Deng-Johnson-Stoudemire is outscoring opponents by 37.1 points per 100 possessions.
What’s perhaps most confounding is how Johnson has been physically able to keep up with the fast-paced flow of the offense.
Of the teams Johnson has played with over the past decade (Atlanta: 2005-06 to 2011-12; Brooklyn: 2012-13 to 2015-16), none ranked higher than 12th in pace. In fact, the teams averaged a ranking of 23rd. As NBA.com’s Couper Moorhead noted, the Heat played at an estimated pace of 103 possessions against the Chicago Bulls, a mark that Johnson’s teams over the last decade reached in less than 5 percent of the more than 800 games played.
“Getting out into the open court, just making plays and playing off instincts. I loved it [in Phoenix], and now in my 15th season I still love it. I hope we can keep the pace up,” Johnson told Moorhead. “I just have to get in better shape.”
The talent of Miami’s opponents over the last three games certainly should be taken into account: New York, Chicago and Phoenix have a combined record of 70-113. However, Miami, which has gone 6-2 since the all-star break and won at times without both Wade and Bosh, is clearly hitting its stride. Johnson has added another scoring threat to Miami’s small-ball lineup, and is pushing the team toward a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race. So far, the experiment has been a resounding success.