MINNEAPOLIS He's the kind of guy you want to cheer for. You really do. It's just been hard this season.He's got that quiet presence, that grinning mug shot that makes you want to tell him to maybe, man, just maybe try to look a little tougher. But recently it's been hard to make Wes Johnson smile, even harder to applaud when he comes off the court.This season, Johnson has averaged just 5.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game, numbers that might have seen him booted from the starting lineup on a lot of teams. But with coach Rick Adelman's confidence behind him, Johnson's play has improved in recent games, culminating in a 19-point performance as the Timberwolves defeated Portland, 106-94, on Tuesday. It was a season high in scoring for Johnson, and performances like his are what the Timberwolves need to take their game to the next level."Great," Kevin Love said of Johnson's play. "Great. He really stepped up tonight. He on a couple possessions, he went and missed the layup and dunked it back in. That's typical Wes. We were happy with the way he played."Johnson opened the night with a big statement, a diving dunk to give the Timberwolves their first points of the night. From there, the shots kept falling. He shot 72.7 percent from the field, his highest mark of the season in any game in which he's attempted more than six shots, and he went three-for-four from beyond the arc. His performance not only contributed to the win, it also instilled confidence in a player who's struggled to find his shots all season.He's supposed to be a shooter, a good one at that. But all year, Johnson has struggled to take the open shots. He's faltered, and he's clung to his spot in the starting lineup due to his defense and Michael Beasley's being relegated to the bench. The Wes Johnson who's taken the court for most games this season hasn't been the player anyone expected, and that's dealt a blow to his confidence until the team's most recent games.In his past four games, Johnson has averaged 7.0 points, despite playing only nine minutes last Saturday. More telling is the fact that he's shot 45.0 percent from the field, a marked increase over the 38.5 percent he's averaging for the season as a whole. The shots are falling, and Johnson's confidence is on the rise."It feels good," Johnson said. "Shots start going in, and then you really get a bounce to your step, and then everything else will start opening up more on the court."Johnson's scoring burst came at perhaps the most charged game yet this season for the Timberwolves. With the win, the team claimed the eighth Western Conference playoff spot at least for a night. And as fleeting as that is, it's hard not to gain some measure of excitement from such a milestone.
Having players like Johnson, Martell Webster, Derrick Williams and Luke Ridnour step up offensively will be crucial for the Timberwolves going forward, a means of pushing them to the next level. Just look at what happens when Johnson contributes: in games that he's scored nine or more points, the Timberwolves have gone 8-2 this season."I think if I step up and really can be consistent with my shot from here on out, we're going to be a pretty good team," Johnson said.Love said Johnson has looked more confident in practices lately, and it's starting to translate into games. Each shot that falls is a mental boost, an insurance policy on his own success and that of his team. Love is going to score upwards of 20, even 30 points each night, but that doesn't make it any less noteworthy when a player like Johnson finishes with 19. In fact, it's a welcome distraction, a change in the excitement from the hum-drum Kevin Love double-double. As what Love is doing becomes more and more normal, the theatrics and thrills will have to come from elsewhere.Look at the league's most successful teams. It's easy for a casual fan to name not just one or two of their players, but rather the entire starting lineup. The Lakers boast names like Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Metta World Peace (who's maybe known most for his name). The Heat have the Big Three: LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. The Timberwolves don't have that kind of star power, and that's unlikely to change in the near future. But what the team needs is for players other than the big names to step up, to be those third and fourth men, and what Johnson did on Wednesday was a step in that direction.There's no better coach than Adelman to foster that culture of personal responsibility and contribution at the highest level. He knows his roster isn't the best of the best, but he also knows how to make his guys play like they are. He's the kind of coach who gives his young players the freedom to play. He doesn't yank them from the lineup after one mistake or let a bad stretch define someone."You've got to put them in situations to succeed, but you've got to give them freedom," Adelman said. "You know the playmakers are going to make mistakes But you've just got to tell them to keep their head up and keep working at it."It's something he learned as a player, that he'd play better when he felt his coach had confidence in him. So in dealing with Johnson's struggles, Adelman has been patient. He's applauded what he could the defense, the rebounds but he's waited for the offense to materialize.Over the past three games, the first signs of that offense appeared, and it finally clicked on Wednesday. It was worth waiting for, not only because of what it added to the win, but also because of what it might hint at for the future. Because for Johnson to succeed, this can't be just a one-shot deal. This has to happen again and again, and he's not a legitimate threat just yet.With just over 3:32 remaining in Wednesday's game, the Trail Blazers pulled within five points, 92-87. The Timberwolves' offense was stalling, and Johnson remained on the bench. For the first time all season, that looked like a mistake. Although it didn't matter in the end, the fact that the team seemed to miss Johnson's offense late in the game is the biggest statement he's made all season.Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.