Amir Johnson focused on helping new team, not facing old one

Amir Johnson is ready to be a veteran leader on a young Celtics team that looks to build on its trip to the playoffs last season. Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics decision-makers, including the team's front office personnel and coaching staff, huddled up at the team's practice facility on May 1 -- about a week after the team's playoff elimination -- and began the arduous task of trying to hone in on the players the Celtics would target via the draft and free agency. Over 48 hours of meetings, Amir Johnson's name kept bubbling up.

"We spent about two days just talking about it and Amir’s name came up early and often as a target that we all thought would really benefit our team," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Two months later, when free agency opened at the crack of midnight on July 1, Stevens and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge made a joint strike aimed at attracting free-agent Johnson to Boston. It must have worked because, by the time Johnson woke up the next morning on the West Coast, the two sides had hammered out a two-year, $24 million pact that made Johnson Boston's first free-agent splurge in nearly two decades.

After a strong regular-season debut while helping Boston to a 112-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night, Johnson gets to see his former team when the Toronto Raptors visit TD Garden on Friday night.

Johnson, who said the Raptors talked to him this summer but ultimately elected to go a different route, said he won't get overly emotional about seeing a team he spent six NBA seasons with and established himself as an impact player in the league. His focus is simply on getting another win for his new team.

"I see those guys over the summer all the time. We're not just [former] teammates, we're friends at the same time. It's not going to be strange," Johnson said. "We've had a lot of battles together. One thing I really want to do is go out and get this win."

Johnson helped the Raptors grow and the team won the last two Atlantic Division crowns. Despite lofty spots in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket the past two years, Toronto's playoff stints ended in the first round both times, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the Wizards last season.

Is there any disappointment for Johnson in Toronto's inability to get over the hump during his time there?

"Yeah, [but] every team goes through their ups and downs," Johnson said. "I just think the organization wanted to make some changes, switch it up and see what they can do different. But we accomplished a lot together, winning our [division] two years -- especially since our franchise player, Chris Bosh, left [after the 2009-10 season]. We kind of grew as a team."

Now Johnson is being tasked with helping a young Boston team continue its own climb. Johnson played only 20 minutes in Wednesday's opener, but put up 15 points and seven rebounds while finishing plus-16 in plus/minus. He continues to thrive in the pick-and-roll game with Isaiah Thomas that spearheads Boston's bench attack.

"[Johnson is] an active screener. He’s not just a big body. He runs and seeks out screens. He rolls to the rim quick, and you saw that he has a variety of finishes at the rim," Stevens said. "He’s a good athlete at the rim. I’m not surprised [at his chemistry with Thomas]. Guys like that, there’s a reason he impacts winning. It’s not always easy to tell. But there’s a reason he does. And I thought he was really good [Wednesday] night. I thought he did a ton for us, protecting the rim, finishing, rolling, making a big shot when we were only up five. He had a good night."

It will come as little surprise to those who follow Johnson's career that his advanced stats were among the best on the team on Wednesday. Boston owned a team-high offensive rating of 112.7 with Johnson on the floor and that was further accentuated by a mere 76.6 defensive rating. Johnson grabbed 28.6 percent of the available defensive caroms (only Jared Sullinger grabbed a higher rate in his floor time) and a team-best 22.6 percent of all rebounds while on the court.

Johnson is hoping his familiarity with the Raptors can help his new team. His focus, however, is always on the defensive end.

"My main thing is defense first, so anything I can do to protect the basket or get myself going, I usually start it on defense," he said. "That's my goal."

Some additional notes from Boston's post-practice access on Thursday:

• Suspended from Wednesday's season-opener, Kelly Olynyk watched the game from the team's practice facility with Ainge. The win took some of the sting out of not being on the court. How was watching with Ainge? "It’s good, I mean, he knows basketball," Olynyk said. "He’s an intellectual guy, especially toward the game of basketball. So you can learn a lot from him."

• How will Boston's rotation change with Olynyk's return? Said Stevens: "He’ll play. I don’t know how it changes everything else. We’ll see." Jared Sullinger made the most of his opportunity with Olynyk out.

• Rookie first-round pick R.J. Hunter was back at practice after being inactive for Wednesday's game due to illness.