Avery Johnson isn't the man in San Antonio. The diminutive point guard will forever play in the seven-foot shadows of David Robinson and Tim Duncan.
But Johnson, 5-11, has reminded everyone how important he is to the Spurs' success in these play-offs.The players and coaching staff never needed a reminder. Johnson is the team's heart and emotional soul. The Spurs will launch into a testimony on Johnson's importance at the drop of a mini-cam or tape recorder as they head into the second round.
What Johnson did against Phoenix made it easier for everyone to listen. The guard averaged 20.5 points and was 33-of-51 from the field (64.7 percent) in the four games as he made the Suns pay for their double-team tactics on Duncan and Robinson. He had 24 assists and just five turnovers in the series.
Johnson had a career-high 30 points to go with seven assists when the team eliminated Phoenix on Wednesday.
"When Avery plays like he did tonight, we don't lose," Duncan said. "It's simple."
Actually, it isn't so simple. The Suns are deeper than any team in the league at the point. Their ability to run Jason Kidd, Kevin Johnson and Steve Nash onto the court can wear a team down. It certainly seemed to wear down Johnson during the regular season when he averaged 5.2 points and three turnovers in the four games against Phoenix.
There's also the matter of Johnson's health. He has been bothered by a sore hip in recent weeks. The injury, Piriformis Syndrome, is usually found in runners, where the lack of body fat complicates tendon movement. He works with a therapist up to twice a day.
There's no way Johnson should have had a big series against the Suns. But, as Spurs' Coach Gregg Popovich notes, others are always talking about what Johnson can't do.
He can't shoot outside. He can't defend his man in the post.
Then he goes out and does it. Johnson sets the tempo. He knows when to pick his spots and exploit what a defense is giving up. That's why the Alamodome crowd was chanting, "Avery, Avery" at the end of their first-round series.
"That's the first time in my life that's happened," Johnson said. "From the start, they were doubling our big guys and cutting off my drives. I had to stop and take the jump shot, and fortunately, I hit them."
Johnson has always had the desire and competitive spirit to carry the Spurs. What he doesn't have is the talent to pull off that task.
Now, it doesn't matter. Robinson and Duncan have the talent. Johnson provides the rest.
"I said before this series began that I'd put A.J. up against any guard in the league," Robinson said. "A.J., for some reason, never has gotten the attention he deserves.
"But he gets it done."