HOUSTON — Ahead of the Houston Rockets' practice at the Toyota Center on Tuesday morning, Chris Paul rebounded for a 36-year-old Joe Johnson before a brief film session.
Just three months ago, Johnson was in Salt Lake City going through similar routines with Jazz assistant Johnnie Bryant.
“Iso Joe” is now in a completely different situation in H-Town with a legitimate shot to win the title, but sacrificing a lesser role than in Utah.
Although Johnson has logged 25 total minutes through six playoff games, averaging 1.3 points and 1.3 rebounds, the 17-year veteran is ready for whatever in this Western Conference semifinals series versus the Jazz. Game 2 is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday.
“For me, it’s whatever minutes I get, I try to go out and be productive, play hard, have fun, enjoy the moment and then whatever I see on the court, because my perspective is different from watching the game than those guys being out there,” Johnson said. “I just try to tell them about adjustments as we probably should make or what’s going to happen, what we need to do, what we probably don’t need to do, so I’m always talking to them and just trying to put my input or trying to put my imprint on the game to help these guys out.”
Utah included Johnson in a three-team deal before the NBA trade deadline in February, sending him to the Sacramento Kings while acquiring Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose — who was eventually waived. Johnson agreed to a contract buyout with the Kings before signing with the Rockets for the remainder of the season.
After the moves, the Jazz closed the season with a 22-6 record to earn a fifth seed in the postseason. Johnson said he watched Utah make its run and called it “impressive.” Even at this stage of his veteran career, Johnson still studies teams around the league, particularly Utah, for which he played 32 games earlier in the season. He’s not surprised to see how things have played out with the Jazz now facing the Rockets.
“For whatever strange reason, I kind of figured it would happen this way,” Johnson said. “Obviously when I left, I still watch basketball, so I’m keeping up with the Jazz, and for whatever strange reason I kind of felt that we would see them one way or another, that’s just kind of how it goes, but they’ve been playing great obviously coming off a tough series against OKC, but it is good to see that they got things on track, got things together and you’ve got to give Coach Quin (Snyder) and his coaching staff a lot of credit.
“He lost a lot this summer, and relying on a rookie pretty much to kind of lead these guys is work.”
Paul has formed a close bond with Johnson, but they rarely share strategies about Utah. With all of their NBA experience, they don’t see a need for that.
“We talk hoop all the time,” Paul said of Johnson. “If you watch basketball enough or play it enough, you sort of get a feel for what they like to do. I don’t think we can really do anything that’s going to surprise them. Same thing with them.”
It’s unlikely that Johnson will suddenly emerge as the seven-time All-Star who buried Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers with a game-winner in Game 1 of last year’s playoffs for Utah. He’s certainly aged, but Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni is aware of his history in this league, which includes eight game-winning buzzer-beaters in the last 11 seasons.
“Now that we’ve got everybody healthy, it makes it a little bit tougher to find room for everybody,” D’Antoni said. “But he’s been steady, and I have more than enough confidence in him that if we get in any kind of problem he’ll take care of it and I’ll go to him and won’t think twice about it, but he’s been great. He’s good to have on the team at any age."
Johnson didn’t log a single minute in Houston’s 110-96 Game 1 win versus Utah on Sunday, but he keeps in contact with his former Jazz teammates. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t treat them to a going-away dinner before his departure from Salt Lake City as previously reported, but there are no hard feelings.
“Nah, I didn’t take everybody out to dinner,” Johnson confirmed, smirking. “I’ve got some guys on that team that still owe me (money), though. I ain’t goin’ say no names.”