An ambush awaited around every corner for Joe Johnson.
He wasn’t safe on the court, as Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio snuck up on him an hour before tip-off, yanking at his headphones. Not long after, Linda Luchetti, the Jazz vice president of basketball operations, found him in the locker room and gave him a bag of snack mix.
Everywhere Johnson went at Vivint Smart Home Arena on Monday night, someone was waiting to give him a hug, to say he was missed or to just say hello. The only break in a feel-good return was the 48 minutes of game time between his Houston Rockets and the Jazz — and even then, fans gave him a sturdy round of applause when he checked in for the first time.
Johnson, 36, is well-liked in Utah. The fact that he was wearing a different jersey a few weeks after his Jazz tenure ended (via trade) won’t soon change that.
The Jazz executives who sat in on Johnson’s exit meeting back on Feb. 8 have nothing but good things to say about Johnson, a seven-time All-Star who helped the Jazz win a playoff series last year. The meeting, it is said, ended with hugs.
“I wasn’t trying to leave on bad terms, you know what I mean?” Johnson said. “We had a good run. Obviously things shifted to where they’re playing more young. They’ve got a good core here. So, you know, i just felt I wanted something a little different.”
What Johnson wanted was a chance to chase a championship, something that has eluded him thus far. After he was waived by the Sacramento Kings, Johnson had several suitors who offered him that opportunity. But only Houston had Mike D’Antoni, who coached Johnson in Phoenix.
Johnson said of being under D’Antoni again, “it’s like we never left.” And his old coach (who is now his new coach) seems to feel the same way. It’s no surprise to him that Johnson has played as long as he has.
“He was one of the strongest, always took care of his body, never seemed to get tired, was durable,” D’Antoni said. “Now I hear he’s into yoga, so he could play another three or four years easily.”
That was at least somewhat foreseeable, the way Johnson played on Monday. He contributed seven points, four rebounds and two assists in Houston’s 96-85 win. In one notable second-half sequence, he backed down Alec Burks in isolation until he hit a turnaround floater from five feet out — a classic Joe Johnson play.
It was reminiscent of a Jazz warm-up ritual, when 6-foot assistant Johnnie Bryant would guard Johnson one-on-one. Standard fouling rules did not apply, and Bryant would hack Johnson, hang all over him and do his best to keep him from scoring.
“We had some good battles, man, before the games,” he said. “Of course I’m gonna miss those. But you live and learn, you move on, you change it up.”