By Steve Lichtenstein
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It takes a certain type of individual to win over New York sports fans’ hearts. It’s not all about stats. To be one of our guys, a player has to exhibit a certain degree of toughness — the worst thing you could be labeled here is soft. Ask former Knicks forward Charles Smith.
Then there’s the mental side to the games. I will argue that Dave Winfield was a better all-around ballplayer on the Yankees than Reggie Jackson. Yet Reggie will always be beloved as Mr. October to Winfield’s demeaning Mr. May because Jackson’s heroics on the grandest stage trumps Winfield’s whiffs in similar circumstances. Alex Rodriguez will never receive the same platitudes as say, Derek Jeter, no matter how many records A-Rod breaks while wearing the pinstripes. With every A-Rod failure in the clutch, it makes it easier for us to disown him.
And, if it looks like you’re not giving your best effort out there, if there’s even the appearance that you are here just to cash your inflated paychecks, you’re toast. Yankees fans literally made Ed Whitson afraid to pitch here before running him out of town in the 1980s. New York Post columnist Peter Vecsey nicknamed former Nets center Joe Barry Carroll “Joe Barely Cares.” And Mets outfielder Jason Bay did not exactly receive any parting gifts from the fans when the Mets bought out his contract a month ago.
Now, I am not accusing any of the above-mentioned players of some kind of athletic fraud. No one is immune from having a bad game every now and then, or even a subpar season. I’m not going to argue that they weren’t trying. But, for reasons from injuries to just plain human ineffectiveness, they not only came up short but also did it in a way that just came across as lackadaisical, which is a shame, because I recognize that it takes a tremendous amount of competitive fire to simply attain professional status. But whether or not it’s fair, body language matters.
So the following is merely meant to be a warning shot in the direction of Brooklyn guard Joe Johnson, whose lackluster play contributed to the Nets’ desultory 97-88 loss to Milwaukee on Sunday night at the Barclays Center. Johnson needs to treat these games with a little more, ahem, urgency, if he wants to avoid the misery of more A-Rod-like vitriol directed at him from the fans.
This one, the Nets’ fourth straight defeat, of which the last three were at home, really wasn’t that close. The Bucks spanked the Nets after spotting them an 11-2 head start in the first three minutes. By halftime, the game devolved into a 48-31 Milwaukee advantage. That’s 20 points scored by the Nets in 21 minutes, folks.
It was no better early in the third quarter, as the Bucks expanded the lead to 68-39 after five-minutes.
Johnson was the most noticeable among the no-shows after his three assists helped the Nets jump out of the gate. Johnson, the Nets’ marquee offseason acquisition who had been touted as half of the best backcourt in basketball playing alongside All Star point guard Deron Williams, struggled with his shooting stroke during his first month in his new Brooklyn uniform but was coming off his strongest performance to date in Friday’s loss to Golden State. In that game, Johnson muscled his way to score inside early before finding a rhythm from beyond the three-point line en route to a 32-point outing.
Unfortunately, Johnson tried a reverse strategy last night and was much less successful, with one measly free throw point before he was mercifully benched after a three-minute stint to start the third quarter. Even worse, Johnson was sloppy with the basketball, repeatedly getting his dribble knocked away by Milwaukee’s pesky guards. He looked like he was playing at intramural-level speed, like a jogger trapped on the track in the middle of a 4X100-meter relay race.
Johnson did help kick-start a run early in the fourth quarter with two buckets, one on a three-pointer, but he was mostly invisible thereafter. I say mostly because I did notice how his matador defense late on Bucks forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute were momentum killers. Johnson finished 2-for-8 from the floor with three turnovers and the Nets got no closer than six points before the Bucks pulled away.
For much of the game, the boo-birds were correctly directing their anger at the Nets as a whole. Williams, who has been battling a litany of injuries that has hindered his perimeter shooting, did not have one of his better games, with a couple of garbage-time baskets inflating his 18-point, eight-assist stat line. The Nets turned the ball over 18 times over the final three stanzas, many of them in a careless manner.
Still, I believe Johnson, as one of the men paid to the max to be a principal in turning around a once-woebegone franchise, was the source of much of their frustrations.
He’s receiving close to $20 million this season, the fifth-highest salary in the NBA. While I agree it is not fair to expect him, at age 31, to produce the results from his peak years in Atlanta, the Nets are not getting anything close to what they paid for. We have seen glimpses of that pure scoring talent, with Johnson taking over to close out a few games in fourth quarters. He can make scoring look so easy. However, it seems like there have been just as many nights like this last one, with Johnson failing to make even 40 percent of his shots.
I’ve heard plenty of excuses. He’s still finding his way on a new team (how are O.J. Mayo and James Harden doing?). The Barclays Center is a new building with unusual lighting (he shoots better at home than on the road). He misses the inside presence of injured starting center Brook Lopez (two of his best performances have occurred in the past five games with Lopez in street clothes). What’s next, the colder weather?
A small part of the problem lies within us. Johnson is not a fiery character. No one should expect that to change. New York basketball fans adored John Starks even after he shot the Knicks out of the 1994 NBA championship. For some reason, we sensed that Starks got the most out of his ability. I don’t know if we can say the same about Johnson’s run (albeit still a limited one at only 19 games) in Brooklyn, no matter if it’s true or not.
Contrast that to the love the fans showed Nets forward Gerald Wallace, who played as hard while down 20-plus points last night as he did in the Nets’ overtime victory over the Knicks two weeks ago. It didn’t matter that his three-point shooting was off-target, Wallace lived up to his nickname (“Crash”), diving for loose balls and leaping high to snare a team-leading 16 rebounds for the undersized Nets. Those still watching thought that Wallace’s skywalking slam dunk with less than four minutes to play was a prelude to one last comeback.
So what that it didn’t? Those moments augment my faith as a fan that Wallace will deliver a consistent effort going forward if healthy. Anyone remember anything significant from Johnson’s 30 minutes of action?
So as the Nets attempt to pick up the pieces from this disastrous slide from Atlantic Division contender to a slim two-game hold on the final Eastern Conference playoff berth, with the Knicks on tap for a rematch on Tuesday, I’m trying to decide what to make of Johnson.
He’s certainly not A-Rod, with all that perceived selfishness and off-the-field drama compounding the underperformance. Johnson’s temperament unfortunately makes him more like George Foster, a quietly confident player who struggled mightily in his initial attempts to justify the mega-bucks the Mets spent in 1982 on his free-agency signing. Foster recorded some admirable stats in the following years despite being no longer equipped with the abilities to be The Man, the player we want to see holding the ball with big games on the line.
While New York vilified Foster, it embraced a different 30-year-old ballplayer traded to the Yankees from Cincinnati 11 years later. Paul O’Neill thrived under the bright lights in the big city. He was worshiped not for being the best player, but for what owner George Steinbrenner called his “Warrior” mentality.
That’s what makes legends in New York. You don’t have to be a superstar like Willis Reed, Joe Namath, Tom Seaver, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Messier or Jeter, to name just a few. We have plenty of room in our hearts for more supporting players, like Charles Oakley, Adam Graves, Len Dykstra, Michael Strachan, Ken Daneyko, and O’Neill. Their lasting impressions are of reaching beyond the limits of their skills and-or age to achieve greatness for themselves and, more importantly, for their teams.
I can’t see Johnson making the necessary modifications to his game and character to attain that degree of prominence. Instead, we may have to settle on a daily basis for how teachers help my seven-year old daughter manage expectations — what you see is what you get, and you shouldn’t get upset.
It’s that last part that doesn’t play so well in New York.
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Johnson and Foster — a fair comparison? Sound off in the comments below…