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JJ At It Again

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He has averaged better than 20 points per game for each of the last three seasons.  He has made the last two All-Star games.  He terrorized the eventual champion Celtics in front of the rest of the country throughout a grueling seven-game series this past spring.  He still doesn't get all that much buzz as one of the game's upper-echelon players.

No problem.  Joe Johnson just keeps rolling.

After a measly 25 points in the Hawks' season-opening upset in Orlando on Wednesday, Johnson was at it again last night against Philadelphia, as if to remind us all that he wasn't kidding around when he repeatedly burned the Celts last spring.  This guy is for real.

On Saturday night, the Hawks opened their home schedule by immediately digging their way into a 23-point deficit against a 76ers team expected to be one of the most improved in the East, thanks largely to the acquisition of power forward Elton Brand.  But it was Johnson who stole the show, pouring in 35 points on 14-of-23 shooting from the field to go with 5 assists and just 2 turnovers as the Hawks roared all the way back to overtake the Sixers in the fourth en route to a 95-88 win.

But beyond the statistics, just as was the case in the playoffs, it comes in sitting down to watch Joe Johnson play that he truly amazes.  This is a guy that can do it all.  He has a quick first step to the basket and is capable of both slithering between defenders for acrobatic lay-ins or bouncing off opponents and finishing with contact.  Johnson handles the ball well and has a good stutter-step and wonderful crossover that allow him to create space for his mid-range jumper, which is lethal.  That he shoots 37.7 percent from deep for his career doesn't hurt either.

On top of all that, JJ simply seems to have a knack for coming up big when the pressure rises.  There is no greater deflating mechanism for a team than playing 20 seconds or more of great defense only to have a player bang a tough shot with the shot clock dying.  Johnson seemed to do it all the time in that series last spring, breaking free at the last second for a leaner from the wing, or a quick step into the paint for a late floater or the occasional bomb from the moon. 

Last night, Johnson put an exclamation point on the Hawks' comeback with that third option.  With the Hawks holding on to a two-point lead in the final minute, the offense stagnated, and Johnson was forced to dribble down most of the shot clock atop the circles near half-court.  As the clock ran down, he began to make his move and had incidental contact with a Sixers defender near the timeline.  Somehow, as the defender lost his balance, Johnson recovered and raced toward the three-point line but had to pull up and release from outside 30 feet as the shot clock expired with 11 ticks to play.  Twine.  It seemed that each pair of shoulders inside of every black jersey slumped at once.  Johnson's improbable three was nothing short of a dagger.

This is the type of thing he does all the time.  As he has grown into a veteran in this league, Johnson's play has only become smarter and more under control.  The Hawks run their offense through him, and the 6-8 off-guard does an excellent job of distributing, to the tune of 5.8 assists per game last year.  He know when to attack the rim and how to get himself to the foul line, but he also knows when to pull up from the outside or to reset the offense.  He plays hard at both ends of the floor and just seems to live for the moments when the temperature in the room rises to a new level along with the intensity.  And he is only 27 years old.

Watching Joe Johnson grow into an even bigger star at the national level over these next couple of seasons is going to be a pleasure.