Posted: Saturday May 28, 2005 12:50PM; Updated: Saturday May 28, 2005 8:04PM
Joe Johnson has been out since suffering an orbital fracture of his left eye in Game 2 of the Suns' second-round series with the Mavs.
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
Bill Laimbeer wore one. So did Chris Webber, Antonio McDyess, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Shawn Bradley. Richard Hamilton wears his as a fashion accessory. No we're not talking about the latest bling or the newest line of alligator footwear. We're talking about the mask, the $700 piece of Durr-Plex plastic that protects various areas of the face from further injury.
For James, it was a broken cheekbone, for Hamilton a busted nose. Tonight the mask takes center stage again, as Phoenix Suns guard Joe Johnson becomes the newest member of the brotherhood of the traveling mask when he dons the plastic in his first game back since suffering an orbital fracture of his left eye in Game 2 of the Suns' second-round series with the Mavericks.
Johnson's return will be a welcome one for Phoenix, who now face the daunting task of trying to take four out of five from the 2003 world champions. Before getting hurt, the third-year pro was averaging 19.0 points per game for the Suns, as well as shooting a scorching 56.5 percent from three-point range. His return would allow swingman Jim Jackson to return to his sixth-man role, giving Phoenix a much-needed boost from a bench that up until now had consisted primarily of backup center Steven Hunter.
How Johnson adjusts to his new face gear will be critical if the Suns hope to get back into this series. Recent history suggests that there may be an adjustment period for masked men. Hamilton scored only seven points in his first game wearing the plastic, while James found wearing the mask advantageous, scoring 26 in his phantom debut, the first of eight consecutive 20-plus point scoring games.
While his offensive productivity is important, where the Suns have missed Johnson the most has been on the defensive end. In game one Phoenix allowed San Antonio to put up 43 points in the fourth quarter, many of which came from perimeter players Manu Ginobili and Brent Barry, two players the athletic Johnson will be counted on to defend. In addition, Johnson gives Suns coach Mike D'Antoni a more physical alternative to matchup with Tony Parker, who has thrived in this fast-paced series. With Johnson in the lineup, look for D'Antoni to switch MVP Steve Nash onto Spurs forward Bruce Bowen in order to save Nash's energy for the offensive end.
Game 3 represents a classic case of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, as the Suns, the NBA's best road team this year, go into San Antonio to face a team that has won 43 of 47 home games this season. Should Johnson return as the player he was before the injury, Phoenix instantly becomes a far more dangerous offensive team as well as a much more versatile defensive one. But should Johnson, who before being hurt had played in 287 straight games, require any extended adjustment time, the Suns will find themselves in a hole that will be impossible to climb out of.