Johnson Good To Go For Game 3

FAYETTEVILLE -- With about six minutes left in Tuesday night's Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals in Phoenix, Suns point guard Steve Nash, covered in sweat, was spent and lying near the home bench.

In the aftermath of San Antonio's 111-108 win that shoved the Spurs to a 2-0 lead in the series, the Suns clearly are down.

But don't count them out just yet.

Not with Joe Johnson expecting to play in Game 3 tonight (8:00, ESPN).

"As of right now, I don't think there's anything that could keep me off the court," Johnson told the Associated Press late Thursday.

The former Arkansas swingman (2000-2001) intends to return for the first time since he crashed, face-first, after Dallas' Jerry Stackhouse challenged a dunk attempt in the first half of Game 2 of that series on May 11.

Johnson (6-foot-7) suffered a broken orbital bone near his left eye and a mild concussion. He didn't remember the game, much less the play, and the Suns' NBA-best regular season run has all but been forgotten in his absence.

That could change tonight -- even in San Antonio; Phoenix has the best road record in the league -- when Johnson returns.

Johnson, who starts at the 2-guard but also spells Nash at the point, led the Suns in minutes played this season and is third on the team in scoring at 17.1 points per game. He's one of the NBA's more dangerous 3-point shooters and Phoenix defenders. He likely will be called on to slow Tony Parker (who obviously is a fast guy seeing how he's running around with Eva Longoria).

Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said after Tuesday's loss that Johnson could make the difference, creating a "domino effect" that would move Jim Jackson back to the bench for a sixth-man spark and give Nash reasonable time to regroup.

Said D'Antoni on Thursday of Johnson's return: "We get back to (being) the team that had the best record in the league."

Johnson, who underwent surgery that involved four face-plates, was fitted for a full mask about eight hours before Tuesday's tip. A trainer mashed the mask against his face to test it, and an almost giddy Johnson passed without a flinch.

"Once he got it on, that was it," Suns head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson told ESPN.com. "He was wearing it. He was already excited then. When we got down here and started shooting, he was very, very excited. His mood was very upbeat and the guys were upbeat that he was out there shooting with them. He's very optimistic.

"He went out for a full shootaround and did real well. He had no problems (Tuesday). He shot pretty well, actually. He was a little rusty, maybe his first 10 shots. After that, he looked good. He was knocking them down. I spent 20 minutes before shootaround running at him, trying to startle him. He didn't seem hesitant at all."

Johnson worked out more intensely Thursday and Friday.

There still is blood in the left eye and swelling around it, but Johnson's tougher than you might think. Since joining the Suns in February 2002, he had played in 287 consecutive games before missing the end of the Dallas series and Games 1 and 2 of this series.

The Suns are 2-3, very close to being eclipsed, without Johnson.

After Tuesday's loss, Johnson donned a weighted flack jacket during conditioning workouts and hit the weight room.

He'll be a bit rusty tonight, no doubt, and there is a little concern about his endurance. Emphasis on little.

"About 15 minutes, he's conditioned," D'Antoni told ESPN.com. "It's amazing."

Said Johnson: "I'm so ready to get out there and play that I'll be fine."

If so, the Suns still could be, too.

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