The Celtics had trimmed a 15-point second-half deficit to 1 and it was still a one-possession game with 5:37 to play when George Hill missed a 3-pointer. Johnson was locked in on the ball as it came off the rim and didn't spot team captain Rajon Rondo going up near him for the same carom. Johnson, likely thinking it might be a Pacers player, would not be denied the ball and the collision knocked Rondo to the floor, which produced another great moment when the entire Boston bench, led by head coach Brad Stevens, rushed to scrape Rondo off the ground.
There are a lot of positives that Boston can pluck from Tuesday's 94-83 loss: Boston's frontline hung tough with Indiana's defensive-minded skyscrapers (registering 20 offensive rebounds that kept the cold-shooting Celtics in the game); Kris Humphries produced another solid outing, thriving again in the mid-range; and Jared Sullinger put together a particularly gritty night against Indiana's frontline (17 points, 9 rebounds).
But Johnson deserves special mention. After endearing himself as a fan favorite for shorthanded Boston on two 10-day contracts in January, he signed on for the rest of the season and has been a steady-but-quiet presence off the Celtics' bench. On Tuesday, he chipped in 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting with three rebounds and two steals over 28 minutes. He played nearly the entire fourth quarter at the 2-guard position and his energy remains infectious.
Which brings us back to that rebound. You see situations like that all the time, where a younger player will realize he is fighting with a more veteran teammate for the same carom and will throw his hands up in the air as if to say, 'It's all yours.' Johnson hauled in the rebound and started dribbling up the floor before the Celtics called time out. (He did give Rondo a gentle dap on the head heading to bench to apologize.)
Johnson lives on hustle and guys like him (including D-League/10-day brethren Chris Babb) are important players for rebuilding teams to have at this stage of the season. It's telling that, as Boston made its fourth-quarter rally, Stevens leaned hard on Johnson and Babb at key moments. That floor time is supremely important to their individual development, but they've also earned it with their full-throttle play.
For the season, Johnson is averaging 6.4 points and 2.4 rebounds over 19.4 minutes per game in 22 appearances. He's plus-45 for the season, no small feat considering Boston is 8-14 in that span and minus-135 when he's off the court. Johnson has carved out a role as a consistent 3-point threat, shooting 40.8 percent (29 of 71) beyond the arc, including 46.2 percent in five appearances in March.
What stands out is how Johnson affects the team when he's on the court. The Celtics own an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 103.1 with Johnson in the game, which is 4 ½ points higher than their season average and almost 7 points higher than when he's not on the court. Flip it to the defensive side and Boston's rating is 101.1 with Johnson, or 2 ½ points less than the season average and 4 ½ points worse than when he's on the bench.
Clearly it's a small sample size and you can make the case that there's a good deal of trash time involved. What's harder to ignore is how many of Boston's advanced stat columns spike with Johnson in the game, including pronounced jumps in rebound percentages.
Johnson has plenty of strides to make, including on the defensive end. He still gets caught cheating off his man at times -- Lance Stephenson burned him with a triple late in the fourth quarter Tuesday when Johnson shuffled away to help deny a Paul George drive -- and his pick-and-roll defense is a work in progress. But Johnson's struggles are not for a lack of trying.
The Celtics inked Johnson to a risk-free, team-friendly four-year deal. He'll spend the summer in the system and hope the roster doesn't get too crowded at his position.
The security of a rest-of-the-season deal could have allowed Johnson to downshift last month. Instead, he's still fighting every chance he gets on the court. And sometimes that means putting the team captain on the floor by accident.