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Joe Johnson was making defenders sweat. The 16-year NBA veteran looked like he had turned back the clock against the Minnesota Timberwolves last week, patiently snaking his way through defenders with confident dribbles between his legs, or bouncing on one foot, his right arm extended in the air until he had watched another 3-pointer splash the net, en route to 22 points off the bench.
It was a performance that might not have happened without his own perspiration and a lot of it.
Before Johnson stepped onto a basketball court Friday morning, he stepped onto a yoga mat, as part of a game-day ritual the 35-year-old forward said has allowed him to be a major contributor for the playoff-bound Utah Jazz.
"This is the key for me at this time in my career," he said.
Johnson completes a 90-minute Bikram yoga class four to five times a week, sweating his way through the 26-pose routine in a humid, 105-degree room.
On Friday morning, Johnson caught a flat tire en route from his home near Park City to the yoga studio in Sugar House, but even that wouldn't keep the Jazzman from showing up, his towel and mat tucked underneath one of his hulking arms, on time for his 6 a.m. class.
Shirtless and wearing a pair of short, red trunks, Johnson stretched and contorted his body, pushing himself in hopes that he might be able to do the same that night on the court.
"It's exhausting," he said, "but it keeps me nimble, flexible, mentally and physically stable."
It has worked well enough for Johnson to convince some of his teammates and coaches to tag along. Point guard Shelvin Mack and forwards Joel Bolomboy and Trey Lyles are regulars now. Jazz coaches Johnnie Bryant, DeSagana Diop and Antonio Lang go frequently, too. The 44-year-old Lang said he has dropped 20 pounds and has been able to dunk with two hands again after years of dealing with pain in his Achilles.
"If he's got yoga in the morning, we move practice for him," Jazz coach Quin Snyder joked.
Johnson was skeptical at first. When former Atlanta Hawks trainer Wally Blase suggested the player try yoga to help deal with tendinitis in his knee, an injury that was causing him to miss games, Johnson scoffed.
"I'm not doing no yoga," he recalls saying. "But he ended up dragging me in there and the rest is history. I've been coming ever since."
Johnson's advice to hot yoga newbies?
"Always breathe. Because you have a tendency, when you get in some of these postures, to hold your breath because they're a little tough and," he said and started to smile, "you may not even know it, but you're killing yourself and you're going to end up passing out."
Survive and, as Johnson can attest, the benefits are real.
No Jazzman has logged more miles than Johnson, who has played more than 1,300 regular-season and playoff games.
"It's tough," he said. "Your body wears down so much, especially when you get older and you've been in this game for quite some time. It wears out your joints and your muscles. It wears it all out."
But when the Jazz signed Johnson to a two-year contract last summer, general manager Dennis Lindsey said the team's doctors had come away impressed with Johnson, whose body had tested out much younger than his age.
"Obviously I've found a few things that have worked for me," Johnson said.
Johnson has tried plenty of fads. "Any type of diet you can think of, I've tried it," he said. "I'm looking for whatever I can to help me to improve my overall body and fitness." He's tried to be a vegan. He's lost 30-plus pounds in 10 days drinking nothing but water with lemons, honey and cayenne pepper.
But the centuries old practice of yoga has proved to be one of the most effective parts of his routine. Now, on the verge of his 12th trip to the postseason and the Jazz's first since 2012, Johnson has showed few signs of slowing down.
"He's been one of our best players all year," forward Gordon Hayward said.
Johnson has been a flexible piece for the Jazz, willing to start or come off the bench, and able to play either on the wing or, his best position, as the Jazz's small-ball power forward this season.
"It's been fun for me to figure out how to use him," Snyder said.
Even at 35, Johnson isn't thinking about retirement soon.
"I haven't put a time limit on it," he said. "I don't put a time limit on anything. I'll just go until my body tells me it's time to stop or whatever the case may be. But I still love the game. I still enjoy it. I don't plan on walking away. Not yet."
He credits his yoga practice for that. And with Johnson locked into a pose early Friday morning, the instructor had a bit of advice: "You can get better every day."
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