The element of surprise is a razor-sharp weapon, so when LA Clippers guard Chris Paul tied the score with a leaning layup high off the glass with 13 seconds left in regulation, Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder tossed the whiteboard aside.
“We wanted just to get it and go and let this man go to work,” Jazz forward Gordon Hayward said.
The man in question was Joe Marcus Johnson, professional scorer, manufacturer of points, and the NBA player who has drained more buzzer-beaters than any other over the past decade. The conditions for his eighth on Saturday night (no other player has more than four) were favorable. Thanks to a sturdy screen from teammate Joe Ingles, Johnson drew Jamal Crawford, a sharpshooter with a less-than-esteemed defensive reputation and the matchup the Jazz wanted to see.
“I remember Joe Ingles setting a pick, got Jamal Crawford on me, and I just seen the clock going down,” Johnson said. “I knew I had to make a play, I just wanted to get as close as I could to the basket, and it was a good thing it went down.”
During his prime seasons in Atlanta, Johnson earned the nickname “Iso Joe” for his propensity to play one-on-one basketball outside of a set offense. The tag was affixed as somewhat of a backhanded compliment. But Saturday night, after driving through the lane to close range to launch a running layup that went rim-glass-rim before falling through for the 97-95 win, Johnson explained the secret of Iso Ball through the mind of the poor defender opposite him.
“In those moments of the game, guys are not going to help,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of like you’re on an island by yourself and they expect for you to get that stop. Nobody wants their man to score, so I just try to be patient, get to a sweet spot, and make the right play.”
The win was improbable and all the more gratifying because the Jazz played all but 17 seconds without center Rudy Gobert, who suffered a hyperextension of his left knee and a bone bruise on the game’s very first possession.
The blow seemed cruel but almost fateful. The team estimated to have lost more wins this season due to injury watched their defensive anchor and the league leader in blocked shots and defensive real plus-minus crumple to the court
“I think we felt and knew that a lot of people probably were counting us out when he went down,” Johnson said. “But man, we stuck together, fought hard for 48 minutes, we had ups and downs, but at the end of the day we came out with a win.”