The Miami Heat have been surging since January. But they’ll need help from their dynamic duo of James and Tyler Johnson to make the final push.
The Miami Heat might just be be this year’s Cinderella team. Things were grave as the team started 11-30, especially in the wake of Heat legend Dwyane Wade leaving the team and champion Chris Bosh being ruled out indefinitely.
Since their atrocious start, however, the Heat have caught fire. They went on a blistering 13-game win streak from Jan. 17 to Feb. 10 and are now battling for a playoff spot at 39-41. Behind much of their success is the Heat’s dynamic, and unrelated, bench duo of James Johnson and Tyler Johnson.
In many ways, the Heat feel a bit like the 80s trope of a bunch of misfits banding together to accomplish the unthinkable. They have former D-Leaguers, rookies, and sophomores all playing big minutes in the wake of a flurry of injuries. They’ve reinvigorated careers and relied on young, untested players.
James Johnson is one of those reinvigorated careers. The 30-year-old veteran and former D-Leaguer, now in the best shape of his life, is averaging career-highs across the board. As is third-year player and one-time D-Leaguer, Tyler Johnson, now 24. There was a time when the combo guard was just looking to make a team; now he’s on a $50 million contract after proving himself in Miami.
The Johnson and Johnson pair (or the “Talcum Powder Boys”) formed an unlikely off-court bond as well as a more typical on-court one — the duo run the Heat’s bench units, with neither having started the entire year until this April. Both are active, versatile players capable of shooting, passing, ball handling, and playmaking.
James, now a permanent power forward at 6’9, has proved capable of defending multiple positions (maybe even all of them). Now that he’s slimmed down, he’s quick enough to stay attached to smaller guards while still maintaining the strength to deal with larger centers. Watch him aggressively front DeMarcus Cousins here. A foul could have been called on James here, but nonetheless it’s tough defense on an elite big.
Tyler, at 6’4, is himself a feisty defender. He’s a high-motor player who rarely, if ever, gives off an air of lethargy on the defensive end. For his height and wingspan, he’s surprisingly good at contesting and, on occasion, blocking shots at the rim through sheer effort and explosiveness.
Additionally, Tyler’s not one to waltz into picks haphazardly. I’m rather fond of the little spin move he, and a few others, do when ducking under high screens.
The Johnsons play a large role in the Heat’s bench efficacy. Since the start of their win streak, their bench (i.e. all players excluding starters) has the fifth best defense out of all benches in the league.
In addition, James and Tyler’s defensive versatility give Coach Spoelstra a lot of leeway. With players such as the Johnsons and Josh Richardson (as well as the injured Justise Winslow), the Heat have a bevy of lineups they can run with multiple perimeter-capable defenders who are allowed to play aggressive defense, knowing the Great Wall of Whiteside is there to protect the paint.
On offense, both Johnsons are respectable shooters with each averaging 1.2 threes per game on 36% shooting. For James that’s by far a career best (next best year for him was 0.4 threes per game on 30% shooting), and for Tyler it’s part of a gradual increase in his scoring output. Both are fearless on the drive and capable of finishing through contact. James in particular is often looking to create contact using his size and newfound agility to his advantage, while Tyler is an excellent slasher of a combo guard.
But it perhaps is their playmaking that really sets the pair apart. With multiple injuries, especially to Dion Waiters, the Heat have a dire lack of creators past their starting point guard, Goran Dragic. James and Tyler, who have the second and third highest assist totals on the team, are keeping them afloat in that department.
For James, it’s in stark contrast to his previous years in the league. While always multitalented, the Heat have found a way to make full use of his abilities, especially his rather unique blend of ball handling, passing, and size. He’s probably touched the ball more than he ever has in his career so far and he has, as of late, become the Heat’s go-to fourth quarter isolation creator.
The Johnsons have developed a nice little two-man game. It can be easy to make an errant pass when players are constantly changing and shifting directions, but the pair have great chemistry when it comes to small screen and rolls. They’ve got a knack for finding each other on back cuts and kick outs.
The fact that either Johnson can, at any given time, screen, dribble penetrate, pass, or shoot gives them an abundance of options. They’ve become excellent at catching each other on the move and since both are potent passers the quickness of the action often allows them to draw attention and then pass to a big for a lob or finish.
Their ability to create sparks the Heat’s second unit; the Heat bench, since their win streak in January started, have the second best bench net rating in the league. According to nbawowy.com, in the same timespan, when both Johnsons share the court, the Heat have a net rating of +6.8 per 100 possessions. When the Johnsons are on the court without Hassan Whiteside or Goran Dragic, the team’s biggest names, the Heat are still +5.8. And when all four are on the court they have a resounding net rating of +8. For comparison, the 2016-2017 Golden State Warriors, in the same time frame, lead the league at +11.1, and the San Antonio Spurs are at +6.5.
The Johnsons allow Spoelstra a large degree of lineup flexibility. Both James and Tyler play in the typical bench units (end of first/start of second quarter and end of third/start of fourth) but also are on the floor during crunch time.
However, credit should be given to Spoelstra, and the rest of the Heat staff, for maximizing the talents of their players. Not only are their players in the best shape of their careers, they’re also allowed to run free. Guys previously seen as wild or erratic on the court, such as James and Waiters, are now given the ball instead of having it taken away. Unlike some coaches (ahem…Doc Rivers) the Heat also trust their youth enough to play them heavily, even late in games. The mindset has helped prevent the team from stagnating in the face of injury and has even allowed them to thrive halfway through the season as they found their identity.
But the Heat aren’t done yet. They’re currently the the ninth seed tied with the eighth, having lost the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls. Their last two games are against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the fourth-seed Washington Wizards.
Thankfully, when it comes to the Cavs, the Heat have James Johnson, a versatile, 6’9 power forward who can match the physicality of LeBron James and hopefully can stymie The King into a sub-par game.
On the other hand, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson are as good a duo as you can wish for when it comes to containing high-octane guards, an asset that will come in handy against Kyrie Irving and the Wizards backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal.
Still, these are two elite teams, and I’d be lying if I said it was likely the Heat beat them both, a must for their playoff hopes.
I sure hope they do, though, because the Heat are, at the moment, my favorite team to watch. And I could do with seeing at least one playoff series that includes them. They play with intensity and grit, and they’re full of players easy to root for: veterans who’ve found new life, and young gunners learning the ropes.
The dynamic duo of James Johnson and Tyler Johnson exemplify that. Versatility is the name of the game in today’s NBA, and the Johnsons have helped pushed their team back to midseason relevance. But the Heat are going to need to keep on trucking if they’re to earn the eighth and final playoff seed in the East. And they’ll need the “Talcum Powder Boys” to keep on charging headfirst into the fray.
All statistics courtesy of stats.nba.com, basketball-reference.com, and nbawowy.com
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