With the Raptors down two big men right now (Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueira) and relying heavily on the limited game of Bismack Biyombo, the time has never been more ripe for James Johnson. He, along with Patrick Patterson and the unplayed Anthony Bennett, are what constitute the rest of the big man rotation for the Raptors. As such, when you squint hard and concentrate, the role Johnson has played in the past week begins to resolve into something--it's obscure and a bit weird, but could be wondrous.
There is a whole subgenre of movies that involve a guy staring or listening hard at something until it makes sense. Think Rear Window, Blow-Up, The Conversation, Blow Out. In each of these films, the protagonist is going over and over a thing--a photo, a recording, a view--convinced there is something there he is not quite understanding. Gradually, some pieces of the narrative come together, but there remains always something just out of reach, inscrutable.
For about 40 minutes this season, the Raptors have tried a super small lineup with Johnson and Patterson at the four and five (plus some combo of Ross, DeRozan, Carroll, Joseph and Lowry). In each of these iterations the team's net rating has soared to numbers ranging from +20.9 to +42.7. It's the smallest of small sample sizes, with one combination of this lineup only the 13th most used for Toronto on the season.
But we see it and stare and stare, and convince ourselves of something. An image resolves into view before disappearing after the next whistle; in this case, beautiful if only for a couple minutes at a time.
Did James Johnson Play?
Clearly my career as an odds maker is over before it even began. Johnson played 42 minutes this past week (I set the line at 21.5 thinking I was bold), yet finished -8 in four games. If you took the over, good thinking once again on your part. And hey, a 2-2 week, with one close loss against the defending champs and a close win against this era's best dynasty is nothing to be down about.
Johnson's calling card on the week has been his unnerving ability to get to the rim fairly easily and finish in traffic. That's the thing he does that you'd definitely notice. In the Warriors game, Johnson led a two-on-one break with Bebe that was broken up by a foul. In the Lakers game, he checked in and immediately got a dunk.
In other moments, as we'll see in the highlight this week, Johnson is on the periphery, making plays just outside the margins of the spectacular.
Continuing from next week, but in reverse, this is the representative James Johnson highlight for the week:
In the game at this moment was Johnson, Cory Joseph, Ross, Patterson and Scola (so not quite super small, but getting there). Unlike times previous, Johnson was not the recipient of a good pass, but the maker of one. This was a risky play--all plays are risky against a defence as good as the Spurs--but Johnson sees it and makes it anyway, hitting Ross perfectly in stride for the dunk. Thankfully Jack Armstrong is there to toss some credit Johnson's way and others are catching on:
James Johnson Doing Things watch: James Johnson is doing things.— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) December 10, 2015
Prediction for the Week
The Raptors' homestand continues this week with two more games--against the Bucks and Sixers--before they head out on the road to take on the Pacers. The team will again be without Valanciunas, with info on Carroll (out indefinitely) and Bebe (day-to-day?) remaining sparse. One can assume that the Bucks and Pacers will run out smaller lineup combinations that favour the idea of the Raptors using Johnson. It's a safe bet we'll see some version of those super small lineups we just discussed.
As for the Sixers, well, some things do not require any more intense study. They remain exactly what they are.
Over/Under Minutes: 28.5
Let's not think about this too much. Three games, some solid chances to play (the Raps' bench is at basically three guys plus a hopeful Norman Powell), and always the shimmering idea of something out there. We're bumping the line up.
What do you guys think?