Nets' Joe Johnson remembers Mike D'Antoni with gratitude

Joe Johnson reacts after hitting a 3-pointer in Joe Johnson reacts after hitting a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter of a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Nov. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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LOS ANGELES -- There's one person in particular who gave Joe Johnson his crack at emerging into one of the NBA's top shooting guards, allowing him to flourish into a six-time All-Star.

That would be the guy making his Lakers' coaching debut Tuesday night.

When Johnson looked over at the bench before the Nets took on the Lakers and saw Mike D'Antoni, it surely brought back old memories, conjuring up visions of some of their glory days in Phoenix together.

"He gave me the confidence to play in this league and the opportunity, so I really, really thank him for that," Johnson said before the Nets' matchup with Kobe Bryant & Co. at the Staples Center. "Every time I see him, we sit back and talk about old times and what could have been. Who knows? Had I not got hurt in that Dallas series, maybe we would have had us a ring or two.

"We'll never know that, but me and him always sit back and reminisce a little bit about some of the good times early in our years . . . It will be great to see him tonight."

Johnson was just a role player for the Suns until 2004. But once Phoenix shipped Stephon Marbury and Penny Hardaway to the Knicks, that opened the door for Johnson to start doing his thing.

And was he ever ready.

"When they traded them to New York, D'Antoni basically told me it was my time to step up to the plate," Johnson said, "and see what I had. He didn't give me anything. I worked hard for it. So he just pushed me everyday. He had the utmost confidence in me. That year was the first year I ever made a game-wining shot. I think I made a couple of them that year, because down the stretch, he put the ball in my hands and gave me an opportunity to make plays.

"I think in this league, as a player, the only thing you look for is that one opening, or that one opportunity that you get, and you just try to take advantage of it."

The Suns were particularly good in 2005, the season Johnson averaged 17.1 points in helping Phoenix post a 62-20 mark and secure the Western Conference's top overall seed. They were a talented group with Amar'e Stoudemire, Steve Nash and Shawn Marion, and also had key contributors like Quentin Richardson.

But things started spiraling in the wrong direction during the second round of the playoffs against the Mavericks. As he soared to the hoop for a layup, Johnson was fouled hard by Jerry Stackhouse and crashed to the court, breaking a bone near his left eye.

Although, they survived that series with Dallas, the Suns couldn't get past the Spurs in the conference finals, creating plenty of D'Antoni doubters.

D'Antoni still takes heat for his system, with detractors continuously saying he can't win a championship with his style. But deep down inside, there's a part of Johnson that believes D'Antoni would be getting more props and respect if Johnson had not gotten hurt during that campaign.

"I think he has a great system and we had a great, great supporting cast around Steve Nash," Johnson said. "That was a hell of a year that year, and we all still relish and look back to those years and wonder what if, when me and Q get together, or me and Shawn or me and Amar’e. So those are things that we can’t get back, but they were great times.”

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