Niyo: Pistons’ Johnson doesn’t back down to James

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Stanley Johnson’s first clue was the noise.

When Kevin Love buried a 3-pointer on the opening possession of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals for the Cavaliers, the sellout crowd at Quicken Loans Arena erupted.

“I thought the gym was about to blow up,” said Johnson, the Pistons rookie. “That’s when I kind of figured, ‘Oh, my, it’s time.’ ”

But later in the first quarter, after Johnson had checked into the game and started body-checking LeBron James, that’s when he knew for sure.

Johnson “fears no man,” according to teammate Reggie Jackson, whose familiarity with the rookie dates several years, and the stories he’d hear from a mutual friend back home in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Johnson was a fixture at USA Basketball camps. Stories about his emotional makeup — “He’s been a mental monster since he was 17,’ ” Jackson said — as well as his physical toughness, both of which were on display in Game 1.

Johnson, six weeks shy of his 20th birthday, immediately clashed with James, the four-time league MVP chasing a sixth consecutive NBA Finals trip. But one exchange in particular left him a bit dumbfounded, and left his coach, Stan Van Gundy, openly criticizing the officials — during an in-game sideline interview with ABC — for what he felt were two offensive fouls on James that went uncalled.

“I understand he’s a physical guy, but if he wants to try to grab me and throw me to the floor, and you call a foul on me, I just don’t understand that,” Johnson said Monday. “Obviously, he got the call and it’s whatever, but for me that was like, ‘Wow.’ I’ve never had a person grab my jersey and try to throw me to the floor and I come up on the wrong end of things like that. So that kind of woke me up a little bit.

“And then from that point on, it was like, ‘It’s on. … We can both go to the floor next time.’ that’s how I took that.”

No quarter asked, no quarter given. And no explanations necessary.

“No, it’s LeBron — that’s the explanation,” said Johnson, who finished with nine points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes. “That’s what it is. I already knew what time it was.”

Van Gundy: 'Everything an option' for dealing with Love

And when Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert tried to get in his head, suggesting the rough stuff really wasn’t his style, Johnson refused to take the bait.

His reply?

“Nothing,” Johnson said, smiling, after a long pause.

Wiser after benching

Now then, none of this came as any surprise to the Pistons, who were quickly sold on the 19-year-old’s moxie last spring as they evaluated draft prospects. At 6-foot-7 and a chiseled 240 pounds, he already looked the part. But he acted it, too.

“Stanley’s toughness and competitiveness, and the fact that he’ll never back down, that has not been a concern all year,” Van Gundy said.

No, the concern — such that it was — had more to do with Johnson’s on-court decision-making and discipline regarding the game plan, whether it’s off-the-ball defense or running a secondary inbounds cut at full speed.

That’s part of the reason he was finally benched for two games in early April — including the Pistons playoff-clinching victory over the Wizards — after a three-week struggle following a shoulder injury that caused him to miss seven games. For Johnson, it was the first time he’d missed a game — in the pros or in college — for basketball-related reasons.

And Monday, after knocking heads with James, he admitted the move by Van Gundy had the desired effect.

The Monday Drive: Pistons undaunted by national stage

“I think Stan does a good job of letting me learn by myself, because I am stubborn,” Johnson said. “He does a good job of telling me what to do. But then he lets me hit my head on the wall a couple times and then figure it out, ‘OK, this is what you’re supposed to be doing.’ … I think the last couple weeks or so, especially after getting the DNP, I was more focused.”

So focused, he said, that after that initial roar in Cleveland, he was able to tune out the rest of the noise in his playoff debut.

“You don’t hear the crowd, you don’t hear anything but your coaches and the calls being made,” he said. “Almost like the gym was silent.”

Already producing

It wasn’t, obviously. And it certainly won’t be Wednesday night, when James & Co. figure to up the ante — it’ll be James’ 180th career playoff game — and challenge the Pistons to match their intensity once again.

Van Gundy admitted after Game 1 he should’ve used Johnson more down the stretch in the fourth quarter, with starter Tobias Harris struggling. Johnson, for his part, says he’s ready whenever he’s called upon.

And before you ask him — or Jackson, among others — to consider what any of this means for the future, well, just know that that’s not really where the Pistons’ collective head is at.

Jackson laughed Monday when he was asked how “enticing” it is to think about the kind of player Johnson could be in 3-4 years.

“It’s enticing to have him now,” he said.