By Draft Day in June, eleven years will have passed since the Boston Celtics made Joe Johnson the 10th overall selection in the 2001 NBA draft. "Jumpshot Joe", what I called him, seemed to be the perfect third fiddle to Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker after bursting into the league early in the 2001-2002 season. Joe grasped a starting job by his fourth game and averaged 12.5 points, with two 20+ point performances, in his first 7 games being a Celtic. This was just the beginning of a special career many Celtics fans had believed. Now after eleven years in the league, a special career it has become indeed, just not the way many of us had imagined.
After struggling with his shot and seeing less and less minutes each game, Joe was relegated to the bench by late January. Only seeing single digit minutes per game at this point, it seemed as if Head Coach Jim O'Brien had already given up on him after such a promising start. Not only did Jim bench him, the Celtics decided they could use this vastly skilled, multi-talented rookie as trade bait to help their push for the upcoming playoffs. Joe was traded to the Phoenix Suns along with Randy Brown, Milt Palacio, and a first round pick for Rodney Rodgers and Tony Delk. Although these two solid role players helped the Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, trading Joe Johnson quickly became known as one the of the worst decisions in Boston Celtics history.
This past Friday night, Joe Johnson led a shorthanded Atlanta Hawks team as they took the Celtics into overtime after trailing by double-digits with only 7 minutes left. Joe made shot after shot, including a deep three to tie the game at 80 with only 37 seconds left in the fourth. Joe carried this team on his back while his fellow star teammates, Josh Smith and Al Horford, sat and watched injured from the bench. When it was all said and done, Joe had scored 29 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in the 90-84 overtime loss. While solemnly speaking at the podium after the game, Joe said he thought a 2-1 series lead fell right out of their hands. They had the chance to grab this win, but what Joe didn't realize was that the Hawks had no business even being in this game without his clutch play forcing it into overtime.
Looking ahead toward the next 2-4 games of this series, the Celtics have grasped as strong of a 2-1 lead you can possibly hold. With or without a hobbling Josh Smith, the Hawks will be ever so dependent on Joe against the best defensive team this league has to offer. Can the Hawks make this series a battle? After a 1-0 series lead, do the Hawks now stand a chance following another heart-breaking loss? Joe Johnson has the weight of Atlanta basketball on his back heading into a make or break game 4 in Boston tonight.
Witnessing Joe's performances ten years after his short time wearing green, it's easy to ponder what could have been for a Pierce-Walker- Johnson trio in Boston. Could this have been the big-3 that finally raised banner-17 before KG-Pierce-Ray and friends did so in 2008? Without the Johnson trade, would Boston had ever seen KG, Ray, or Rondo even playing on the parquet with Pierce? There are some questions in life that can never be answered and these questions surely fit this bill. What we do know is that a promising rookie I once called "Jumpshot Joe" is now a six-time all star and currently battling the Celtics to no avail. Already proving Jim O'Brien and Celtics brass wrong, leading the Hawks to a series victory would be the perfect revenge against the team that gave up on him way too quick.