The problems that have dogged the sputtering Raptors in the first two games of the playoffs are many. The rebounding has been atrocious, Kyle Lowry can't stay on the damned floor and is being held together by PVA glue, and the perimeter defense has been non-existent. No one player or coaching adjustment is going to solve the ongoing issues.
James Johnson included.
Outrage has been the feeling of choice for Raptors fans all season in relation to Johnson's sporadic play. It's understandable too. Big Red was an excellent plus-minus player all year. He also had some prominent signature moments. He scored 20 in Toronto's February 8th win over the Spurs, one of the team's best wins of the year. And there was also something involving a joint being cocked back mixed in there as well.
Dwane Casey's stinginess persisted though, as did the outcry from the masses for more Johnson. The saga reached its peak in Game 1 against the Wizards, as the Air Canada Centre crazies chanted Johnson's name in hopes of urging (or scaring) Casey into bringing the athletic wing off the pine.
Toronto's coach finally obliged in Game 2, subbing Johnson in as the Raptors led 37-34 with 7:07 remaining in the second quarter. His entrance was met by an ovation that dwarfed than the one Lou Williams received when he collected his Sixth Man trophy before the game. As you probably know, things went south from there.
To be fair to Johnson, he wasn't the only player who contributed to the Raptors cataclysm in the final two and a half quarters on Tuesday. As has been mentioned, Lowry got into foul trouble, Greivis Vasquez did absolutely nothing worth shimmying about and Williams added to his poor playoff shooting totals (5-13 FG; 0-4 3FG).
Still, Johnson's stat line of 4 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists for a -14 in seven minutes was gruesome. His play highlighted many of the reasons why he probably isn't the magic elixir for the Raptors against Washington. Based on the skills that he brings to the table, and how those skills mesh with the rest of the team, there's a case to be made that Johnson hurts rather than helps the Raptors in this particular match-up.
We're giving Paul Pierce too much credit
For everything that Paul Pierce is - a playoff-proven veteran, a solid shooter and an all-world level destroyer of the Raptors' psyche - he is not the player he once was. At his advanced age, Pierce is no longer a threat to create offense off the dribble. Randy Wittman's decision to play Pierce at the four in spurts against Toronto has been met with universal praise; Casey has received an equal amount of scorn for not having Johnson guard Pierce when he's at that position.
But because Pierce is primarily a spot-up shooter at this point, Johnson, based on his skills on the defensive end, is probably not well-equipped to guard the 37-year-old. Johnson is at his best as an on-ball defender, using his athleticism and physicality to prevent equally athletic and physical wings from finding a shot off the dribble; Joe Johnson killed the Raptors last April, and is exactly that kind of player.
Paul Pierce is not Joe Johnson.
Off the ball, (James) Johnson's defense gets a tad dicey. He tends to over-help and get caught out of position - to the point that Casey actually called him out on it publicly in late March. Because of his tendency to cheat, asking Johnson to rotate out to get in Pierce's face as he launches threes from the corner may not be maximizing his abilities as a defender.
Patrick Patterson is probably the best of Casey's options to defend Pierce when he plays power forward - he's athletic and smart enough to guard the perimeter and doesn't need to worry about having the smaller and slower Pierce blow past him. In the second quarter of Game 1, where Pierce found success, Tyler Hansbrough was victimized while Patterson and Pierce barely even shared the court. It's clear that Casey needs a more mobile player to stop Pierce from burning the Raptors from the four. Based on their skills and habits, Patterson probably makes more sense than the aggressive Johnson.
It's a tricky fit with the other perimeter players
The easy answer to the above dilemma with Johnson is to use him in a scenario where he can take advantage of his on-ball stopping capabilities. The problem is finding him a fit on the perimeter against this Wizards team.
Pairing him with the starting back court of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan has been disastrous for the Raptors offense this season. On the season, the Raptors had 75 three-man combinations play 200 or more minutes together. The trio of DeRozan, Lowry and Johnson posted the 74th-best Offensive Rating out of those groupings at 99.8. That said, Johnson's has been a noticeable defensive boost. When paired with the Raptors' two stars, the threesome had a sterling Defensive Rating of 92.8.
(In fact, on that list of three-man units, seven combinations produced a sub-100 Defensive Rating. Johnson was a part of all seven).
However, we saw the redundancy in pairing Johnson with DeRozan in Game 2. In the final 7:07 of the second quarter, Johnson and DeRozan played a game of dueling isolations.
The former managed to go 2-3 from the field in that time, but the offense noticeably died every time he touched the ball as he repeatedly backed down the Wizards' bigs in the post. According to NBA.com's Player Tracking, Johnson made only one pass in his entire stint of playing time. Having both Johnson and DeRozan on the court at the same time completely destroyed Toronto's spacing en route to the Raptors getting outscored 26-12 from the time Johnson took to the court.
Playing Johnson alongside Vasquez and Williams was also successful this year (109.1/100.8/+8.3 NET). But that configuration still leaves the Raptors vulnerable to penetration by John Wall and Bradley Beal; Johnson can't guard both of them at the same time.
Vasquez and Williams have been horrendously bad in the first two games. And its becoming painfully clear that DeRozan and Lowry will have to be the ones to carry the Raptors to a series win, however unlikely that may seem. And while Johnson's defensive impact is obvious when paired with the two All-Stars, maximizing Toronto's offensive potential and spacing has to be of higher priority against the Wizards' top-five defense.
Maybe he really is a match-up guy?
Casey has insisted repeatedly this season that Johnson is a match-up player best used in certain situations that will accent his specific skills. At the start of the season, Casey deployed Johnson as part of his juggernaut second unit. Lining up next to Hansbrough, Patterson, Vasquez and Williams, Johnson's limited offensive game was augmented by a multitude of shooters, and his fantastic post moves provided a different look than what the rest of his running mates offered up.
As the season wore on and injuries messed with the Raptors' rotation, that second unit, which played to Johnson's strengths, saw almost no minutes together and his minutes dwindled. Yet whenever he was called upon, he shone, and finished the season with an NET Rating of +7.0, among the best on the team - impressive for a player with such obvious offensive limitations.
Maybe that career best mark is actually a by-product of Casey putting him in the very best scenarios for him to succeed, and limiting his ability to hurt the team. And perhaps he feels that against a team like the Wizards, that has trouble scoring (Game 2 notwithstanding), is vulnerable to the three ball and doesn't boast a Joe Johnson-like wing, Big Red is not of particular use.
Based on the vitriol that has been directed Casey's way this season, suggesting that the maligned Raptors coach has intelligently managed the team just might get you shot.
But when it comes to James Johnson, Casey may be outsmarting us all.
(Stats via NBA.com/stats)