Houston • Basketball life is a bit different for Joe Johnson now.
His days of being a lethal scorer in the post and on the perimeter are over, with his last stand probably coming a season ago with the Jazz. He’s now with the Houston Rockets, with the best chance in a long and successful career at winning an elusive title but no longer in the rotation for perhaps the first time in his career.
His dry sense of humor, however, remains.
“Of course I’m going to be happy to see my former teammates,” Johnson said when asked about his feelings on facing the Jazz. “Some of them still owe me bread.”
Johnson’s not likely to play a big role when Utah faces Houston in Game 2 of this Western Conference semifinal Wednesday. But the move to the Rockets after a trade to the Sacramento Kings and buyout at the deadline was worth it for him.
Johnson has done all he can as a player except win a ring. He has been an All-Star seven times. He has made more than $200 million in a career spanning almost 20 years. He has been a first option, a high-level second option and a key vet piece. He’s one of the top 50 scorers in NBA history.
For a veteran like Johnson, a title will tie together his career. And the Rockets are full of veteran players looking for that elusive ring: Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, Ryan Anderson and NeNe.
Johnson and Paul often talk about potentially climbing the mountain, stealing moments away from the spotlight where they converse about their respective careers and dream about getting to the top. Everywhere Johnson has been, he has been able to forge friendships with his teammates with his sharp wit and engaging, if quiet, personality.
His brief time in Houston has been no different.
“We talk hoop all the time,” Paul said. “If you watch basketball enough or play it enough, you sort of get a feel for what they like to do.”
Part of the reason Johnson is not in Houston’s rotation lies in its depth. The Rockets are one of the best teams in the league as they showed in a Game 1 win over the Jazz and all season. Playing time has been thin for Johnson with Tucker and Ariza and Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute.
He has made two appearances and played 18 minutes total in the postseason for the Rockets. He didn’t play in Game 1 against the Jazz. Most of his contributions these days rest in his veteran know-how and leadership to some of the younger players on the roster.
“I’m just trying to help these guys in any way I can,” Johnson said. “It’s been great being here. It’s a great group of guys and a great coaching staff, and we have great chemistry. This is a deep and talented team. We have a lot of guys who can play. This is probably the first time that we’ve been healthy since I’ve been here.”
And that’s where Johnson has helped with the Rockets. The roster was injury-ravaged when he signed with Houston, so coach Mike D’Antoni played him extensively. Johnson averaged 22 minutes a game in March and another 17 minutes in April. He was able to provide shooting and a post threat off the bench. More important, he allowed the Rockets to continue to play well until they got healthy.
He hopes that a championship lies at the end of the tunnel. Johnson has played on some good teams in his career. The “seven seconds or less” Phoenix Suns led by Steve Nash were close to title contenders. The late-2000s Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets and 2017 Utah Jazz were good teams that fell short of the top tier.
So this may have to be the year for Johnson. It’s his best shot at winning a title. It realistically may be his only shot.