Mike D’Antoni’s memories of coaching Joe Johnson in Phoenix aren’t necessarily good ones.
“He left me in Phoenix, cost me at least two championships,” the Rockets coach joked before Wednesday’s 100-91 win over the Sacramento Kings. “He got hurt in the one and then we lose him.”
Johnson missed the first two games of the 2005 Western Conference Finals after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured left orbital bone. The Suns lost both those games at home and eventually the series in five games to the San Antonio Spurs. That summer he signed as a restricted free agent with the Atlanta Hawks.
“Yeah, I know man. I know. I know, I know, I know,” Johnson said with a smile Wednesday before playing 31 minutes in his Rockets debut when told of what D’Antoni said.
“We had some great times. It’s good to be back in his presence, playing for him again.”
Pressed into duty with Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza out Wednesday, Johnson scored nine points and grabbed three rebounds. Before the game, D’Antoni was excited to coach Johnson almost 13 years after that disappointment against San Antonio.
“It’s great to be reunited with him. He’s really good. He’s professional, great in the locker room, I mean, there’s so many benefits to what he does.”
After Wednesday’s game, D’Antoni was even more effusive in his praise.
“Joe’s going to fit in great, he’s going to be perfect. I don’t think he has his legs; his shots weren’t what they were (tonight). He’s going to make shots, he doesn’t get tired, I trust him, he can guard one through fours, even fives. He’s going to be really good, smooth, he can handle it, he can make plays, he’s got some gas left. He’s going to be good.”
A seven-time all-star, Johnson started the season with the Utah Jazz, but averaged career-lows in minutes and points after missing 21 games with a right wrist injury. He was traded to the Sacramento Kings at the trade deadline, but was waived Saturday after agreeing to a buyout on the remainder of his one year, $8 million contract. It didn’t take long for reports to come out saying Johnson would join the Rockets after clearing waivers.
“This is the team I wanted from the start. I didn’t even have a conversation with anybody else.”
“I talked to (Chris Paul). He was like one of the first people to call me because we’ve got somewhat of some history, played together on the (2008) Olympic team. I know James (Harden), obviously, I know Gerald, Gerald Green, we played together in Miami. It wasn’t a tough decision for me.”
Johnson played 31 minutes out of necessity Wednesday night, but when the Rockets comeback from the All Star break on February 23, they expect to be 100 percent healthy with Gordon and Ariza back from injury so minutes will be harder to come by, though he isn’t worried about that.
“At this point in my career, obviously, I’ve still got something left. This has obviously been a great team. I understand what I’m up against as far as playing time or not playing. No gripe or groan with me, I’m here to help out.”
“Anytime you can better your team, and there’s two ways to do it, maybe through trade or signing guys. I like it better signing guys,” D’Antoni said. “Now we just gotta find room and get everybody comfortable, and kind of get some rotations, which won’t be easy, some guys are going to get squeezed a little bit, but hopefully we’ll understand the bigger picture and it’s all about trying to go deep in the playoffs.”
In 2005 Mike D’Antoni and Joe Johnson narrowly missed out on winning a championship together. 13 years and nine teams later they get a second shot at it.