NZ Breakers need import Johnson to produce
Breakers coach Dean Vickerman has laid a firm challenge at the feet of his wavering American point guard, Kerron Johnson.
The Breakers host the Melbourne Tigers tomorrow night at Vector Arena in the first of a three-game home stand to finish the regular season, with the scenario simple: Win them all and the Auckland-based club can still sneak into the Australian NBL playoffs - lose one, and they're done.
Vickerman is not sugar-coating the task facing Johnson, who has had a significant drop-off in form over the last few weeks which has coincided with three road defeats and an ever more precarious ladder position.
Johnson had a shocking road double a fortnight ago when he fouled out of both games in Wollongong and Adelaide, managing a collective eight points in 38 minutes whilst going one-of-12 from the floor.
That seemed to knock his confidence.
Last round, in a home win over Townsville and road loss at Cairns, his numbers were better, but still modest.
He had nine points, seven assists and no rebounds in the 102-99 win over the Crocs, and 11 points, one assist and five boards in the 87-92 defeat to the Taipans.
Crucially, in both games he was on the bench in the deciding minutes of close contests.
Over the last five games Johnson is averaging 8.0ppg, 3.2rpg and 4.0apg whilst putting up just 6.2 field goal attempts. Given that he's hardly a defensive presence, these are not the numbers you require from your starting import point guard.
At 10-15 the Breakers have to get the equation spot-on from here, and trust that 13-15 will be enough to seal fourth spot, with tiebreakers over Sydney, Melbourne, Wollongong and Cairns.
But to do that the champions of the previous three seasons have to get Johnson back into something resembling a groove.
"He's got to prove we can win," Vickerman said today after the final training hitout of the week at Vector.
"His job as our point guard is to do that.
"He had a disappointing weekend on that road trip where he fouled out twice, and that's allowed other people to close out games.
"That's something he wants to do, and we spoke during the week about what he's got to do to go ahead and close out these last few games.
"He's got to make his free throws down the stretch, he's got to control the team and get people the shots they need, and defence is huge too - there's no use backing off and letting people run their offence, he's got to stay up the floor and make it difficult for people to get into their offence."
Vickerman said leadership was always going to be Johnson's big challenge this season, as a 23-year-old in his first professional season. The Alabama native has admitted he's had his struggles adjusting to the requirements of his new league.
The Breakers coach accepted there would be a transition required there and some time needed for him to get up to speed in a new environment.
"Our message to him is always to continue to stay aggressive. We need him in transition getting buckets, to draw fouls, and he's got to pick his points like imports in this league late in the shot clock to attack the rim."
It's not all on Johnson, but the Breakers definitely need him to be the good KJ if they're to uphold their part of the bargain and extend their home win streak to seven to close out the season.
Vickerman was certainly buoyant on the prospect today after putting a fit - bar the continued absence of Alex Pledger - squad through its paces.
"There's no more chances after this one. It's a series win that's important, but every one of these three games is important, none more so than this one. We enjoy being back here and we feel like we're going to have a great crowd behind us.
"We've played well at home recently, won four in a row and we'll try to continue that stretch."
Their season relies on it.