By the time the playoff push begins, nearly every NBA player is dealing with some sort of ailment. Whether its the drain of minutes stacking up, five months of physical play taking its toll or the mental fog that comes from the nonstop whirlwind that is an NBA regular season, this time of year is tough.
“I don’t think no player in the NBA right now feels 100 percent,” Kyle Lowry said after Toronto’s victory against the Atlanta Hawks. “It’s that time of the year where everyone has nicks and knacks and bruises and all that stuff.”
When Amir Johnson was bumped by Atlanta’s Shelvin Mack on Sunday afternoon, he went to the ground clutching his knee. Playing most nights with at least one wobbly ankle, Johnson ending up on the floor is a familiar sight. Half of the time it’s because he’s sacrificing his body for the chance at saving a loose ball; the other half of the time, it’s one of those ankles bringing him to his knees.
Johnson grabbing his knee wasn’t part of this normal routine. It rattled his teammates.
“Oh yeah, I’m still scared when he falls,” Lowry said. “But he’s a great player and he he gives it all and it makes everyone else give their all too.”
DeMar DeRozan echoed Lowry’s sentiments, and explained the unique way he checked in on his teammate.
“I’ve seen Amir get hit by a Mack truck and get up,” DeRozan said, pun not intended. “I always hate to see him go down. One thing about Amir, Amir plays through any and everything. He kind of scared me tonight. When he grabbed his knee, I kind of cussed at him a little to make sure he was alright.”
After being helped to his feet and walking off the impact of the hit, Johnson stayed in the game.
“He had my heart in my throat there for a little bit,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “Once I gave him the thumbs-up, I had to get him back up.”
With typical nonchalance, Johnson downplayed the severity of the situation. Not yet showered, he sat in front of his locker, feet in a tub of ice, knee heavily ice-wrapped as well, too many basketball shoes to count scattered around him. Brushing off any lingering impact of the hit, he said he wasn’t scared once he got up and started walking it off.
When a reporter asked if he would be sitting to heal some of the bangs and bruises he is constantly playing through if the team were not fighting for playoff positioning, Johnson shrugged and admitted, “Nah, probably not,” with a slight smile.
That steadfast dedication to his teammates has earned him the respect of everyone in the locker room.
“To be honest, he’s probably our heart and soul,” Lowry said.
As the Raptors aim to close out the end of the regular season on a high note, those aches and pains won’t disappear. Helping to make them easier to forget, though, is the reality that they are playing for something that extends beyond the 82 games awarded to every NBA team.
In the meantime, one only needs to look at Johnson, a walking advertisement for NBA trainers and ice tubs, to understand how focused this group is on getting to the next phase.