'JJ' No Average Joe For Rising Suns

DALLAS - Well, of course. Ouch! On second stare, better make that, "Ye-e-e-e-e-e-ow!"

And we don't mean Ming.

Haven't been able, or hungry enough, to watch a sporting event without working in years.

My best old college buddy, Pat Parish, called the other day, offering a ticket to Friday night's Mavericks-Suns showdown down here.

With the exact same Ouachita Baptist University degree earned at the exact same time, Parish makes about four times my salary as a hot-shot executive with Telepictures, a division of Warner Bros.

But that's another story, one I'm not dying to live with for now.

There will be pre- and postgame parties in the American Airlines Center, the most happening place in town, Parish assured me.

Sold!

One of the best selling points was the chance to see former Arkansas swingman Joe Johnson, who has had a phenomenal season with Phoenix, which sports the MVP (point guard Steve Nash), Coach of the Year (Mike D'Antoni) and best record in the NBA. At first cringe, thought about maybe working the game to bring back a Johnson column.

Nah. Let's take real advantage of this opportunity. Besides, I did mention the before and after action (Mavs Dancers, ESPN Street Team and Gilley's Girls in the Bud Beer Garden), right? Probably will tell you how that went later.

Still, was looking forward to watching Johnson, whom we covered during his one-and-a-half flashy Arkansas seasons (2000-2001). Besides, we could bring back some things to tell you later.

That fell through when Jerry Stackhouse made a manly - but totally acceptable, although Dick Bavetta ruled it a fragrant foul - stand against a driving Johnson with 19.7 seconds left in the first quarter of Wednesday night's 108-106 Dallas win in Phoenix that tied the Western Conference semifinal series at 1-1.

Johnson sat out of Friday's Game 3 and already is ruled out of Sunday's Games 4 here. He likely won't play in Game 5 in Phoenix and could miss the rest of the season, even if the Suns rise to the NBA Finals.

Here's how it played out: The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Johnson grabbed the rim with both hands, as Stackhouse cleared from underneath. Johnson swung forward, to let Stackhouse through, then backward while releasing.

Bad timing. Johnson landed pretty much face-first on the American West Arena floor, causing a large cut on his left brow, a bad bite through a lip, mild concussion, fracture of the left orbital bone (the ridge where the eyebrow rests) and loads of concern.

Stackhouse was obviously worried after impact and said afterward the level of collision was not intentional.

"I hope he's fine and he comes back," Stackhouse said. "He's a key part of this series."

While Suns trainers and teammates hovered around him for several minutes, the clearly shaken Johnson's left eyebrow area bled and immediately and grotesquely began to swell.

"He was pretty much out of it," said Aaron Nelson, the Suns' head trainer. "We were trying to ask him questions to find out how severe a concussion it was. So we were like, 'Can you shoot the free throws?'

"And he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, let's go.'"

Nelson taped up the gash and Johnson toed the line, somehow making the second attempt for his eighth point.

Noticing Johnson just didn't look right, Nelson called him to the bench. Johnson, who required six stitches to close the cut and also injured his wrist and hand, was taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital where he was held for observation overnight and went through successful surgery Thursday morn to repair the displaced orbital bone.

If there's a chance for a return, Johnson will try and take it, facial mask and all. This versatile guy who mans the point in Nash's absence and knocks 'em dead at shooting guard and small forward, is game.

Since being dealt to the Suns on Feb. 20, 2002, Johnson has not missed a game. During this regular season, Johnson sported the fourth-most minutes (3,240) in the NBA, leading to the seventh-most average minutes (39.5).

"He's an integral part of our team, there's no doubt about that," D'Antoni said.

Said Nash: "Joe's been averaging a bunch of points, he's one of our best defenders and he's obviously a terrific player."

Interesting Nash would talk about Johnson's defense. After all, he was a steal. In the trade with Boston (which took Johnson with 2001's 10th overall pick), the Suns not only got Johnson, but also Randy Brown, Milt Palacio and the Celtics' 2002 first-round pick.

In return, the Celtics got Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk.

After playing in just 48 games for Boston (with an average of 6.3 points in 20.9 minutes), Johnson has grown into a star, so much so that D'Antoni said, "There's no reason he can't become the best 2-guard in the league."

Not bad for a 23-year-old. Not an exaggeration, either.

During the last regular season, Johnson started all 82 games, playing a team-high 39.5 minutes and averaging 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, .96 steals and just 1.8 turnovers.

He was second in NBA 3-point percentage (.478) and eighth in treys made (177) despite being just 17th in trey attempts (370).

Before Wednesday, Johnson was averaging a whopping 42.8 minutes, 21.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 rebounds and just .80 turnovers in the playoffs. He was hitting .571 percent of his 3-point attempts and scored a team-high 25 points in the Game 4 sweep-clincher against the Grizzlies and tied his playoffs high with 25 in the Suns' Game 1 win vs. the Mavs.

They call him JJ in Phoenix, but around these parts the quiet fellow from Little Rock was known only by his first name. But from the start, it was obvious he was no average Joe.

Because of academic issues, Johnson played just half his first season here, but was named the Southeastern Conference's co-Freshman of the Year after averaging 16 points and 5.7 rebounds.

His sophomore season, Johnson was good for 14.2 points and 6.4 rebounds.

But back to Phoenix.

"Obviously, we need him," Nash said.

On the Suns' official Web site, there's a spot entitled, "Send JJ a get-well-soon e-mail."

Our sentiments exactly. Just wish it could've been sooner.

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