There have been nights this season when Amir Johnson has looked a step slow. Despite essentially being a full-time starter, Johnson and his balky ankles and sore feet are playing only 22.3 minutes per game, down more than 4 minutes per night from his final season in Toronto. Before Jae Crowder's recent high ankle sprain, Johnson was a rare fourth-quarter presence.
But Johnson was on the floor in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers. While turning in one of his most efficient offensive performances of the season, Johnson made maybe his only egregious mistake of the night when he was too cavalier trying to shovel a short pass to Jared Sullinger.
Philadelphia's Nerlens Noel stole the pass with momentum going the other way. With Boston clinging to a seven-point lead with under six minutes to play, Johnson elected to give chase. And as an unsuspecting Noel went up for what he likely thought was an uncontested slam, Johnson came racing from behind with a foul that prevented easy points.
Noel stared back incredulously, baffled at how Johnson had managed to track him down and deliver a forceful foul. Noel missed both of the free throws and Boston scored the game's next seven points while pulling away for a 120-105 triumph that snapped the Celtics' four-game losing streak.
Johnson was excellent while posting a season-high 18 points on 9-of-10 shooting. He scored 12 of those points in the first half, showcasing that lightning-fast one-handed half-hook or finishing feeds from both Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart around the basket. Running in transition early in the third quarter, Thomas delivered a highlight-worthy between-the-legs bounce pass that Johnson collected with a head of steam and threw down a one-handed slam. All nine of Johnson's makes came around the basket and his only miss came when he strayed.
It was the hustle sequence with Noel that defined Johnson's night. Johnson had no business catching him from behind, but with Philadelphia rallying, Johnson seemed to recognize that Boston couldn't give up both free points and momentum.
"I thought that was big," Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters in Philadelphia before praising Noel's ability to generate steals with his length. "But that was a big deal [for Johnson] to get down the court and foul him."
There's rarely such thing as a regular-season "must-win" and even though Thomas had dubbed Friday's visit to Toronto as such, Boston's season didn't wither after their fourth straight loss (though the Celtics did tumble down to No. 6 in the East as part of this recent skid). With a daunting five-game road trip looming out west later this week, a trek that includes games against Western Conference powers like the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers, Boston couldn't afford to let Sunday's game get away, at least with hopes of snagging a top seed in an Eastern Conference that's been muddied by the surges of the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, and Charlotte Hornets.
Thomas produced another gaudy stat line with 26 points, eight assists, and six rebounds and Boston put all five of its starters in double figures. Still, it was Johnson who really elevated his play on Sunday and Stevens suggested he had been solid much of the week, especailly in the absence of injured swingmen Crowder and Jonas Jerebko.
"I think since the second half in Indiana, [Johnson has] been awfully good," Stevens told reporters in Philadelphia. "So we're going to need him to continue to be that way. He just gives us a different level of athleticism down there, and an ability to not only challenge shots, but also finish tip-ins and lobs."
The man who playfully calls himself the "Big Dog" has been more basset hound than rottweiler this season. While his offensive contributions are typically limited -- as evidenced by a mere 7.1 points per game -- Johnson has done an excellent job on defense, holding opponents to 1.6 percent below below their season average and 7.9 percent below their averages inside of 6 feet, according to the league's player tracking data. Johnson has been the back-line defender/rim protector that the team hoped for when it splurged in free agency, signing the 28-year-old Johnson to a deal that will pay him a team-high $12 million this season.
For the Celtics to be successful, particularly while players like Crowder and Jonas Jerebko are sidelined, Boston needs Johnson to make a mark on games. Since the All-Star break, Johnson is playing only 19.2 minutes per game, 4 minutes less than the first half of the season. But Sunday showed he can still be impactful on both ends and Boston's stats for the season suggest that, when Johnson is more active on the glass and blocking shots, the Celtics are more likely to win games.
The long-term outlook? The Celtics can waive Johnson before July 3 and none of his salary is guaranteed. If Boston believes it can use that space more efficiently in free agency, it can move on from Johnson after this lone season. But that could also depend on how the free-agency dominoes start to fall.
Johnson can make Boston's decision tougher with his play down the stretch and into the playoffs. He's been solid enough with the starters that Stevens said recently -- before Crowder's injury, at least -- that he has not considered any changes to the starting 5. Johnson owns a net rating of plus-4.1 when he's on the court, though Boston is still plus-2.6 when he's off the floor.
Boston's defensive rating with Johnson on the floor Sunday was 95.8, or 6.3 points better than the team's game average (102.1). Pair that with a stellar offensive rating (129.8) and Johnson's net rating was plus-34 for the night, only a fraction of a point behind Evan Turner's team-best number.
Those eye-catching numbers are nice, but it's the Noel-catching sort of plays that really hammer home Johnson's value to this Celtics team.