'It's the Last Name Alone that Bonded Us': How James and Tyler Johnson Clicked in Miami

The Heat's James Johnson and Tyler Johnson have been two highlights in an otherwise choppy year in Miami. They have also formed an unlikely off-the-court friendship.
January 12, 2017, 6:06pm
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Heat reserves James Johnson and Tyler Johnson are being evasive about oriental cuisine. To be specific, each is talking about how the other always drags him to get Chinese food, and both are denying culpability for what went down at P.F. Chang's.

This is what it's like to hang around partners in crime, two guys who live down the street from each other and locker next to each other, who orbit each other on the floor and follow each other to dinner afterward. And who, most importantly, share the seven-letter sequence spelling the second-most popular surname in the country.

"I don't even think we'd be friends if we didn't have the Johnson connection," says Tyler, the third-year Heat guard, betraying no trace of irony in his voice. James, in his eighth year in the league, and his first with the team, agrees: "It's the last name alone that bonded us. After that, our personalities clicked."

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Six months ago, they were more or less strangers; now their chemistry is fueling the best basketball of their careers. In what has been a choppy, injury-marred season for the Miami Heat, the Johnsons—who are, just to be clear, unrelated—have been a revelation of consistency and vitality. As cohesive on the court as they are inseparable off of it, Johnson & Johnson are the only watchable Heat product on some nights, and they are the only formula head coach Erik Spoelstra won't tinker with.

Spoelstra has tried 11 different players in the starting lineup this season, but not the Johnsons, whom he usually subs in at the six-minute mark of the first and third quarters and staggers the rest of each half. They've played more minutes together than all but one other lineup pairing on the team, and are vaulting each other to career-high averages in points, rebounds, and assists. The duo scores more than any other pair of NBA teammates who haven't started a game.

"We're getting good production from them, good results on the scoreboard," Spoelstra said, though he couldn't explain how the two are doing it. He could only say why he played them. "They like good competition, they're tough, and they're good defenders. We like that."

Beyond their names, the Johnsons don't bear much resemblance in profile or personality. James, a brash, bearded hulk at 6'9" and 250 pounds, has five years, five inches, and two front teeth on Tyler, who at 24 doesn't look a day out of high school, and who seems to use his mouth less to speak up than to hunt swinging elbows. The former was a first-round pick out of an ACC powerhouse; the latter went undrafted out of Fresno State. They'd never been teammates prior to this season.

Tyler Johnson is averaging career highs across the board—thanks in part to his "brother" James. Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

James is a flurry of mock-suspicious glares and singsong teasing, while Tyler plays things closer to the vest. It's the opposite on the court, where Tyler plays an overcaffeinated twitch, and James attacks more selectively. But their contrasting temperaments match up. "Sometimes he's quiet to my loud, sometimes he's loud to my quiet," James says. "It just works."

Look deeper and you'll find things that might explain their natural rapport. Between James, who hails from Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Tyler, who was born in North Dakota, the two Johnsons represent two of the four least populated states in the union. ("We're doing all right, huh?" says James.) They both did tours in the D-League, James briefly to keep his NBA career afloat in 2013, Tyler hunting for a ten-day contract to jumpstart his after college.

But both insist their camaraderie has nothing to do with any of those things, and everything to do with the name.

Tyler and James refer to each other as brothers, of course, and James talks about checking up on his nephew, Tyler's son Dameon. And as the neighboring Johnson families take turns hosting each other for dinners, the name has made those terms of endearment take on an almost literal quality.

Still, it's not like they walked on court the first day of training camp with an innate sense of each other's games; great partnerships take work. But they did share the Johnson ethic—a devotion to late nights in the gym. They practiced playing handoffs and screens, got extra shots up, lifted weights, worked on "damn near everything" together, James says.

That sweat brought them closer, and both think it's made them better players. "He forces me to talk," Tyler says, "because that was one of my biggest weaknesses coming into the season, was my ability to have a voice. He makes me talk about what I'm seeing on the floor, and he tells me what he's seeing." For his part, James credits Tyler with pushing him even harder in workouts.

Their two-man game in the halfcourt, though, is where they are punking opponents. James roams from elbow to elbow giving screens and reversing the ball, while Tyler, a furious satellite, races around him. They mix in slipped-screen actions with brisk give-and-gos, improvising the timing and location of the exchanges mostly on feel, James tells me.

"They play really well off each other," says Josh Richardson, the Heat's starting shooting guard, recently returned from injury. "J.J. likes setting screens, and Ty likes coming off screens. It's gotten to the point where they know where each other are gonna be at."

James Johnson has expanded his repertoire this season. Photo by Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries to teammates have given the Johnsons more opportunity to showcase their expanded repertoire on the floor together. James in particular has revealed, in addition to snappy playmaking, newfound range (he's shooting 39 percent from three) and a knack for nifty and occasionally devastating finishes at the rim. Those strong suits figure to make him a coveted piece at the February trade deadline.

To some extent, the league has grown into versatile tweeners like James, who's on a one-year deal with Miami—he can initiate the offense, spread the floor, and with a 7'1" wingspan defend all five positions. But he has grown up, too, after bouncing around the league his first several years as a pro. He credits the Heat with turning him loose, and since returning from a shoulder injury in mid-December, he's been good for 14 points, five boards, and four assists a night. "I feel like I worked my way into whatever I got right now," he said. "I'm super woke now to what's needed to stay in this league."

I asked James if he saw in Tyler a younger version of himself—an idea he dismissed. "I actually, at his age, was nowhere near how mature he is right now," he said. "He's focused, he's locked in, he's not doing mumbo-jumbo games on the side during practice. He doesn't know one way but to go hard."

He's right: the younger Johnson hasn't stopped bobbing for loose balls since signing a $50 million contract this past off-season. An avid rebounder and shot-blocker with sneaky hops, Tyler has developed a reputation for fearlessness above the rim and in the clutch. His raw statistics might not blow anyone out of the water yet, but for a reserve, averaging 13.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists plus a block and a steal show the broad impact he makes on the game. Tyler Johnson may already be the best two-way guard on the Miami Heat; the question looming over the franchise now is when it will ship Goran Dragic out of town so it can hand him the keys.

In the meantime, the duo Shaq called the Talcum Powder Boys will continue to enjoy the fruits of their camaraderie and their labor—and occasionally suffer the consequences. After all, brothers who ride together get chicken fried rice together, and when the Chinese food is contaminated, they also miss time together.

James eventually lets me in on the inside joke: he and Tyler had grabbed P.F. Chang's in Phoenix the night before the Heat played the Suns. Come morning, he says, fondly recalling digestive misery, "the Johnsons was outta commission!" (The injury report listed James as out with an illness, Tyler with a migraine.)

Whose idea it was to go remains contested. "We don't do P.F. Chang's no more," Tyler says. "We're anti-P.F. Chang's. I'm gonna leave it at that."

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