Amir Johnson has learned to clean up by doing the dirty work


Amir Johnson has learned to clean up by doing the dirty work

Every weekday until Sept. 7, we'll take a look at each player at the Celtics roster: Their strengths and their weaknesses, their ceiling and their floor. We continue today with Amir Johnson. For a look at the other profiles, click here.

BOSTON – In the summer of 2007, Amir Johnson had two NBA seasons under his belt but very little to show for it. 
He joined the Pistons as a second-round draft choice straight out of high school in 2005, and got a Harvard-like basketball education as he learned from a trio of All-Stars (Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess) as well as veterans such as Elden Campbell.
Waiting for his chance to play behind them taught Johnson a valuable lesson in patience, as well as finding ways to impact games besides the obvious metrics of scoring, rebounding and blocked shots. 
Johnson quickly figured out he could make a nice living in the NBA doing the dirty work, the intangibles that don’t get much attention but are absolutely critical to a team’s success. 
It’s one of the many reasons the Celtics made acquiring the 11-year veteran a priority last summer. And when Kevin Durant spurned Boston to instead sign with Golden State, Johnson’s return to the Celtics became a given. 
But the role he was called upon to play last season will be slightly different with the addition of Al Horford. 
Instead of being counted on to be Boston’s primary rim-protector, Johnson will now get some much-needed help from Horford, who has been one of the better defensive big men in the NBA. 
So what does it all mean to Johnson heading into this season?
Here’s a look at the ceiling as well as the floor for Johnson’s game, with training camp just a few weeks away. 
The Ceiling for Johnson – All-NBA Defensive Team
He has established himself as a solid defender, but Johnson hasn’t really gotten much love when it comes to inclusion among the league’s top defensive players. That’s because he doesn’t put up gaudy numbers defensively. And for the most part he has played on good but not great teams, which to some degree has not put him in the best light in terms of having his defense highlighted. 
But across the NBA landscape, people have known about Johnson -- and what he can do defensively -- for years.
That’s why when he first became a free agent in 2007 after those two non-descript seasons in Detroit, there were a number of teams aggressively pursuing him with contract offers . . . including perennial power San Antonio.
Johnson eventually re-signed with Detroit, where his defensive prowess began to shine more and more. His reputation solidified during six seasons in Toronto.
In his first season with Boston last year, Johnson was particularly impressive when it came to defending at the rim. According to NBA.com/stats, Johnson limited opponents to shooting 8.9 percent less from the field within six feet of the rim when he was defending them. 
Because of his position on the floor, Johnson spends most of his time defending players looking to score from inside the 3-point line. When it came to defending 2-point shots, Johnson limited opponents to 45.8 percent shooting, which was 3.9 percent less than what they shot from the field overall.
And when you look at what he has done in man-to-man coverage, that too has been impressive. Atlanta Hawks All-Star Paul Millsap has shot just 36.6 percent (15-for-41) shooting against Johnson. Even future Hall of Famers like Dirk Nowitzki have had their struggles against Johnson who, according to nbasavant.com, has limited Nowitzki to 35.5 percent on 11-for-31 shooting from the field.
Like most big men in the NBA, defending switches on pick-and-rolls is also paramount to being a good defender. 
This, too, has been an area in which Johnson has excelled. 
Washington’s John Wall is one of the fastest players in the league when he has the ball, a player who has consistently shown an ability to blow past defenders bigger than him. 
But Johnson’s lateral quickness and defensive instincts have enabled him to more than hold his own when he has had to guard Wall, evident by limiting the Wizards star to just 8-for-26 shooting (30.7 percent) when he is the primary defender.
If Johnson can continue to defend at such a high level and Boston finds itself near the top of the East, Johnson’s play defensively will certainly be talked about as one of the reasons. And that may lead to him getting some serious consideration as an all-NBA defender. 
The floor for Johnson – Rotation player
One of Johnson’s former teammates told me that one of his best qualities is that he can help you win games without a single play being called for him. 
In building a title contender, having players with that particular quality becomes extremely valuable. 
And when it comes to Johnson, there’s no mistaking that he has tremendous value to the Boston Celtics. 

In addition to the 7.3 points and 6.4 rebounds he provides per game, he also provides a voice of experience that the younger Celtics players have leaned on from time to time. 
He’s a veteran who starts now, but Johnson remembers all too well how difficult it was early in his career to sit and watch, wondering when his opportunity to showcase his skills would come. 
It required patience, something he has been preaching to his Celtics teammates practically from the time he arrived. 
Players with those qualities do more to help a team than hurt them. So as the Celtics continue to stockpile talent, which may impact how much court time Johnson gets in the future, his contributions -- even in a more limited role -- still have tremendous value. That’s why regardless of who the Celtics add to the mix, Johnson will have a place in the team’s regular rotation as a starter or key reserve off the bench. 

Celtics-Thunder preview: Balancing rest and rhythm

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Celtics-Thunder preview: Balancing rest and rhythm

BOSTON – With the NBA playoffs looming, this is a tricky time of year for most of the league’s playoff-bound teams. 

Both players and coaches want to head into the postseason well-rested. 

But they also want to be in a good playing rhythm.

MORE - OKC not taking shorthanded C's for granted

Injuries have forced the Boston Celtics to sit some players who are likely to be able to play (and well-rested) when the playoffs. 

And tonight’s foe, the Oklahoma City Thunder, are in a similar situation as well. 

“It's something you're walking a tightrope on all the time, where a guy is really rested but you've taken him out of rhythm,” said Thunder head coach Billy Donovan. “The biggest thing is, there's gotta be communication between the players and the medical staff, coaches, of where guys are, what they need.

Donovan added, “I think rest this time of year would help any player, but there's a balance between maybe getting too much rest and maybe getting out of rhythm. The players are always walking that line during the course of the year, because you kind of get into a rhythm of playing every other day, you get into that, and then there's a back to back here or there, and you get three games in four nights, but yeah. You try to best as you can with your players, help them balance that the best they can.”

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook can see how some players might need to strike a balance between getting enough rest late in the season while maintaining a good playing rhythm.  

So, I asked him which is his preference?

“I prefer to play,” he said. “Rhythm and all that (expletive), it’s in your mind.”

For Westbrook, maybe so. 

But it is very real to a number of players in the NBA, among them being his teammate and fellow All-Star Paul George. 

“If you know why you’re in the gym and the work you’re getting, you lock in,” George said. “You prepare, get your work done. And you get off your legs, get off our feet and get your rest. It’s easy to balance the two when you know what exactly you’re doing and you know exactly what you need to do.”

Boston has worked to strike that balance with Kyrie Irving all season.

That’s why the five-time All-Star is averaging 24.4 points per game which is 11th in the league. However, he’s doing it in 32.2 minutes which ranks 55th in the league in minutes played per game. 

Lately, Irving has gotten more time off than he would like as he deals with a sore left knee that has kept him sidelined for the Celtics’ last three games. 

It doesn’t appear to be something that will limit him now.

However, having him sit out games now increases the likelihood that he’ll be ready to roll at or near full strength, when the playoffs arrive. 

Boston is also playing without Jaylen Brown who suffered a concussion when he fell on his back following a dunk at Houston on March 3. He is expected to return at some point between now and the end of the regular season which could be a blessing in disguise for the 6-foot-7 Brown who will be called upon to not only remain Boston’s next-best scoring option to Kyrie Irving, but also defend at a high level. 

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens acknowledged that they have given thought to how to find that happy medium between resting guys while ensuring as best they can, that players will be refreshed for the playoffs. 

“We haven’t been in that situation very often, where we choose to do rest except for that stretch in December when we rested Al (Horford),” Stevens said. “But everything else has kind of happened organically with guys being dinged up or whatever the case may be. I think that’s … we’ll probably be in a situation where we will continue to have those discussions.”


Thunder not taking shorthanded Celtics for granted

Thunder not taking shorthanded Celtics for granted

Oklahoma City All-Star Paul George knows the Boston Celtics team he and his Thunder teammates will face tomorrow night, won’t be at full strength.

But he’s wise enough to know if you focus too much on an opponent’s key losses to their roster, that same team can potentially hand you a loss which is the last thing the Thunder need right now in what’s shaping up to be a tightly contested Western Conference playoff race.

MORE - I.T. isn't ruling out return to C's

Currently fourth in the standings, only four games separate teams No. 3-8. Only Houston (56-14) and Golden State (53-17) have secured a postseason berth. 

Which means the Celtics won’t catch Oklahoma City sleeping on them heading into tomorrow night’s game. 

“We are going to address it the same way regardless of who's in there,” George said. “We got to pick these games up. We lost the game on our floor earlier this season.”

But that was early in the season when the Thunder were still trying to figure out how its newly formed core of Russell Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony, could mesh.

Oklahoma City has gotten stronger as the season progressed, and are one of the hottest teams around with six straight wins, the most recent being a 132-125 victory at Eastern Conference-leading Toronto. 

Meanwhile, Boston (47-23) has lost its last two games and three of four so from a momentum standpoint, the Thunder have every reason to feel as though they’ll emerge victorious tomorrow night. 

And they also have added motivation from their Nov. 3 matchup with the Celtics in Oklahoma City that ended with a 101-94 win for Boston. 

Westbrook had 19 points and 11 assists in that game but shot 7-for-20 from the field. Carmelo Anthony had 14 points but did so on a woeful 3-for-17 shooting. And then there was George’s 25 points on 9-for-20 shooting to go with 10 rebounds. 

“We have to show who we are,” George said.

Who they are, is a team that’s fighting for home court in at least the first round of the playoffs where they are currently fourth in the West. 

And their success in the last six games has been fueled by strong play at both ends of the floor. 


In that stretch, Oklahoma City is averaging 116.2 points which ranks second in the NBA during that span. Defensively, they are allowing 104.5 points which is the 10th-fewest allowed in the last six games.

“Just making the right plays, offensively and defensively” is how Westbrook described the team’s recent run of success. 

And the Thunder have every intention of keeping it going against a beat-up Celtics squad that they know they can’t take lightly. 

“Again, we are playing really well,” George said. “A step back if we lose no matter who's in or who's out would hurt us.”