Pacers’ Enforcer Emerges After Brutal Battle with the Bucks

Unsigned NBA wing James Johnson emerges from a cabin carrying a log. Meanwhile, on a television screen behind him, highlights of Giannis Antetokounpo hulking out on the sidelines and in the players tunnel repeats in a loop. Johnson balances a wooden log upright and thrusts downward — with his bare hands. The log explodes in half. As he pauses to wipe his brow, the trees begin to sway and the repetitive whooping sound of helicopter choppers fills the air. The helicopter lands in a field. The door opens and out steps Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan guarding his bruised ribs. “I know why you’re here,” Johnson says, interrupting Buchanan. And with that the Pacers found their newest forward. Did Johnson’s signing play exactly like that? I’m not sure, but I’d like to imagine that’s how it played out. On Tuesday afternoon, the Pacers scraped the 35-year-old wing defender off the trash heap and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Pacers have a few needs, especially on the defensive end, where they leave the paint open. But more importantly, Wednesday night’s postgame fracas triggered them to sign an old enforcer from Rick Carlisle’s past. According to Carlisle, an unknown Bucks player injured Buchanan during Antetokounmpo’s postgame tirade in search of the game ball, following his career-high performance, Johnson, who previously played for Carlisle on the Mavericks in 2020 and again in 2022, is an experienced vet off the bench for Indiana, but he doesn’t even qualify as a 3-and-D defender as a 30-percent career shooter. He’s most renowned as a black belt with MMA fight experience making him an apropos signing for Indiana. Don’t get pedantic about his record or quality of opponents. This is the NBA. Think it’s a joke all you want. Serge Ibaka certainly didn’t after Johnson slipped him with a jab to the chin and Ibaka’s response was to throw his hands up. Ibaka might look like he can wrestle a bear and even then he didn’t want those problems. The now-suspended Draymond Green’s cheap shots have sullied the name of hardwood enforcers, but it’s a requirement for any team worth talking about. There’s a reason Dillon Brooks is getting $80 million from the Houston Rockets and it’s not just for his streaky shooting. Ime Udoka wanted to instill toughness in his young Rockets. Carlisle found his Mr. Miyagi. Johnson isn’t of Green’s caliber defensively. He won’t transform their 28th ranked defense into a tangible thing. Next time they face the Bucks on New Year’s Day, Antetokounmpo is still going to cannonball towards the rim and bruise egos. However, NBA teams will spend a pretty penny on an intimidator. No team needed one more than the Pacers and Johnson came cheap. Next time an NBA superstar thinks he can treat the Pacers like chumps, Johnson is the backstop.