This was not the kind of return Joe Johnson had in mind.
The Atlanta Hawks swingman makes his first visit to Phoenix with his new team after leaving the Suns in a sign-and-trade deal over the summer.
Johnson’s club is tied with Toronto for the fewest wins in the NBA after a 102-101 loss to the Raptors on Friday night. Johnson scored a career-high 34 points, but he’s so far been unable to make much of an impact in the win column for the Hawks.
“We’re a lot better than that team, especially at home,” Johnson said after Atlanta’s fourth straight loss. “We got down too early. Defensively, we didn’t have enough down the stretch.”
The Hawks haven’t had enough of anything in the early going, opening the season nine straight losses before managing to win two in a row.
Johnson was signed to handle the point guard spot and he has been steady in leading the Hawks in points and assists, but that hasn’t been enough to help his team improve.
Johnson played a key role in the Suns’ march to the Western Conference finals last season, but wasn’t able to come to an agreement on a new deal with Phoenix. He eventually was sent to the Hawks in the sign-and-trade, but one of Atlanta’s owners, Steve Belkin, disapproved with how much Atlanta was giving up to get Johnson, a solid role player but not a star with the Suns.
A messy dispute between Belkin and the Hawks’ other owners ensued, with Belkin eventually resigning his post. Atlanta shipped forward Boris Diaw and two first-round draft picks to the Suns for Johnson, who then signed a $70 million, five-year contract.
“It was all worth it,” Johnson said at the time. “I’m glad everything worked out and the process is over. I wanted to be a Hawk and I’m ready to get started.”
He may find himself rethinking his decision Sunday, when his former team comes to town looking for its sixth straight victory.
Phoenix got off to a 4-5 start a season after winning 31 of its first 35 games, but the Suns defeated Denver 102-97 at home Friday night as they continued show signs of returning to their 2004-05 form.
Phoenix did blow a 17-point halftime lead before rallying for the win.
“We allowed them to make a run at us, and we didn’t stay focused on how we were playing in the first half,” said forward Shawn Marion, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds. “To fight and come back after losing the lead says a lot about this team.”
Diaw, who didn’t make much of an impact with Atlanta, has started the last four games for the Suns and averaged 14.7 ppg and 7.0 rpg in those contests.
Phoenix has also played well defensively, holding its last seven opponents under 100 points in going 6-1 during that span.
The Suns have dominated the series with the Hawks, winning 15 of the past 20 meetings and 11 of the last 13 at America West Arena.
STANDINGS (through Dec. 3): Hawks - 5th place, 7 GB, Southeast Division. Suns - 3rd place, 1 GB, Pacific Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Hawks - Johnson, 18.4 ppg and 5.3 apg; Pachulia, 10.1 rpg. Suns - Marion, 19.3 ppg and 12.4 rpg; Nash, 10.6 apg.
2004-05 SEASON SERIES: Suns, 2-0.
LAST MEETING: March 22; Suns, 105-94. At Atlanta, Amare Stoudemire had 40 points and 13 rebounds as Phoenix became the ninth team to win 50 games following a 50-loss season.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Hawks - 1-7 on the road; Suns - 6-4 at home.