There’s a very stealth-like efficiency to the way Amir Johnson plays.
He sets screens, boxes out bigs so guards can swoop in for rebounds. And when he scores, it becomes must-see TV because it won’t happen too often.
His game has lots of layers to it, but defense remains at the core of his longevity in the NBA.
That aspect of his play will be front and center tonight against the Denver Nuggets and their star-on-the-rise Nikola Jokic.
“He’s incredibly talented,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Jokic. “Tremendously skilled player. Scores on the block, terrific at the elbows, can really shoot and a tremendous passer. He’s a lot like Al (Horford) when he has the ball.”
And while both Horford and Johnson will defend Jokic, Stevens often has Johnson defend the bigger player at the power forward or center position.
As much as Isaiah Thomas and Avery Bradley and others have the kind of numbers that speak to how impressive the Celtics have been this season, Johnson has found ways to impact the game in several areas at both ends of the floor on a slightly higher level recently.
In fact, his numbers over the last 15 games are better in just about eery statistical category of significance.
Always among his team’s top shooters from the floor, Johnson is connecting on 63.2 percent of his shots in the last 15 games, compared to his season average of 57.5 percent.
And from 3-point range he has made 47.1 percent of his 3s in the last 15 games, up from 40.1 percent this season.
“He’s the slowest shooter in NBA history,” quipped Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. “We never know when it’s going in. But if he takes his time, more than likely it’s going in. He needs all the time he can. We know when he winds up, he shoots it at a good percentage.”
Thomas added, “He does his job each and every night. That’s rebound, set screens, score when he has the ball and make it easier for everybody else. That’s how special Amir is. A person who looks at the stat sheet might be like, ‘he’s not doing anything.’ But a person who knows how valuable people are to teams know he’s very valuable to what we do.”
This season, players he defends are shooting 1.9 percent less when he’s defending them as opposed to their regular shooting percentage.
And in Boston’s last 15 games, Johnson has limited players he’s guarding to shooting 3.1 percent worst when he’s guarding them versus their usual shooting percentage.
“Amir has been really good,” Stevens said. “He gives us a ton of defensive versatility with that first group. A lot of times we ask him to guard a bigger guy or a five (center). He’s guarded fours (power forwards) a lot in his career. The way the game has changed, for the most part people are playing fours that are threes (small forwards), and at the 5 they’re playing fours. And he’s able to defend both spots pretty well with his versatility. He’s able to make an open shot and score around the rim. So we need his continued rolling to the rim.”
And while some might cringe when they seem launch shots from beyond the three-point line, Stevens’ confidence in Johnson’s long-range shooting is undeniable.
“I believe in Amir shooting the ball,” Stevens said. “His numbers back that up.”
And those numbers, much like his game, are very stealth-like but efficient.