The Big 3 Brooklyn Nets you thought you knew are gone. Without Kyrie Irving, they couldn’t win that high-scoring way.
They’ve been replaced by a grind-it-out defensive team. And few players embody that more than hard-nosed journeyman James Johnson.
“The biggest part about this team is just trying to find the identity and sticking to that,” Johnson told The Post. “We have to have some kind of identity that when we’re going into a gym it’s not the Brooklyn Nets that’s on paper, it’s that hard-fighting, physical, tough win-it-out gang.”
The Nets are 12-5, coming into Saturday atop the Eastern Conference thanks largely to a top-10 defense that has surpassed all expectations.
Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton were among the few stout defenders on last season’s porous unit, but Claxton hasn’t played since Oct. 25, and Brown went down Friday with a hamstring injury. GM Sean Marks’ offseason defensive additions have been leaned on, first DeAndre’ Bembry and now the past few games Johnson.
“I knew what they wanted from me when they signed me here, and it was just up to me to get in the best shape possible and to make it happen,” Johnson told The Post. “I liked the ramp up that I got, and I was able to really sharpen some tools.”
After not playing for six straight games, Johnson has found his way back into the rotation. He got limited minutes in Oklahoma City and against Golden State, before posting a solid plus-16 in 23:21 vs. Cleveland, grabbing nine rebounds and handing out four assists.
Then he unveiled a surprising offensive game in Friday’s shorthanded come-from-behind win over Orlando, with 17 points on 8-of-11 shooting, grabbing 10 boards and dishing out four more dimes.
“He brings a different dynamic to our team with that playmaking and that ballhandling, dribbling and our shooters finishing around the rim. He does a little bit of everything, and he’s going to be a key part of where we’re trying to go,” James Harden said of Johnson.
“Just great competitiveness, playing for the team, spirit was great,” coach Steve Nash said. “Obviously he can do some playmaking out there, he can attack the basket with his quickness and size and he rebounded the ball for us.”
Johnson was with Claxton on Saturday handing out free turkeys at Calvary Baptist Church in Red Hook. The Nets and New York Liberty Foundation donated over 2,000 Thanksgiving meals this weekend to families struggling with food insecurity across three neighborhoods: Red Hook, East Flatbush and Brownsville.
“As soon as I got the word that it was available to me, I was all for it,” Johnson told The Post. “This is what we’re about, just to come back and really be in the city, really be in Brooklyn, that’s what it’s about, man. That basketball, that’s just cream.”
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