When Danny Ainge brought Chris Johnson in for a workout last week, Ainge definitely thought, “You know, this looks like a guy who could score 11 points off the bench and almost help us steal a road game against the Miami Heat.”
Or something like that.
Johnson, who was inked to a 10-day contract on Friday, made the most of his debut with the Celtics on Tuesday. The former Dayton Flyer came off the bench to provide 11 points, three rebounds, a steal and innumerable hustle plays in a shockingly close 93-86 loss in Miami.
Even more importantly for the Celtics, Johnson woke them from their doldrums when it looked like they just might let the Heat walk away with an easy victory.
“The first six minutes of the game we were trying to figure out if we could be successful [Tuesday] or not,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought we were way too tentative and we weren’t playing with the sense of urgency we need to have a chance. The last 42 minutes, we fought. We fought about as hard as we can fight, and Chris was very hungry.”
The Celtics trailed by 17 points in the second quarter when Johnson, who had checked in two minutes earlier for an injured Avery Bradley, nailed a corner 3-pointer. Johnson added another three from almost the same spot later in the frame. Suddenly, the Celtics weren’t lollygagging around anymore.
With the help of Johnson’s threes, the Celtics went on a 13-2 run to pull within seven points before halftime. He had even more left for the fourth quarter, when he scored on an and-one layup and a putback, then added a steal to facilitate a fastbreak dunk by Kris Humphries to pull Boston within a basket.
Johnson’s performance did not result in a win for the Celtics — it takes more than a couple Tommy Points for the Celts to steal a “W” right now — so Johnson didn’t get a big head, even though he recorded more than a quarter of his career NBA points in one night.
“I’m not trying to do too much,” said Johnson, who now has 40 career points in the NBA. “There’s great players on the floor. I’m just doing the little things to help the team try to win.”
Despite another gut-wrenching defeat in which his team simply wasn’t able to execute down the stretch, Stevens sang Johnson’s praises after the game.
“Man, he was good tonight,” Stevens said. “He was really good tonight. Not just on the scoring side of things. Not just on the stats side of things. He made a ton of plays defensively that were just good, smart plays.”
Granted, the bar couldn’t be lower. At the start of the new year, Johnson was a member of the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers and now he’s in the NBA, getting crunchtime minutes against the defending champs. The Celtics, meanwhile, have expectations of a high draft pick, which makes their goals either low or lofty, depending on your point of view. They signed Vander Blue of the Delaware 87ers during the game, which means Johnson could be just the start of a D-League movement in Boston this season.
Not every game will be against LeBron James amid the pyrotechnics of South Beach. If Johnson sticks around beyond this current 10-day stint, he will have to find a way to repeat this type of output from night to night.
“The challenge,” Stevens said, “is to stay hungry at this level.”
If Stevens didn’t have to worry about fielding a viable rotation, the injuries that have decimated Boston’s backcourt might almost be humorous to him.
With Rajon Rondo on a minutes restriction as he recovers from a torn ACL and Jerryd Bayless out at least a week with a sprained toe, another Celtics guard took a hit when Bradley was forced to leave the game in the second quarter. Bradley suffered a sprained ankle while defending Mario Chalmers, according to the team, and did not return. Stevens told reporters after the game that it looked unlikely Bradley will play Wednesday in Washington.
“I was sitting next to [assistant coach] Jay Larranaga, who I think can still play a little bit, and I was going to throw him in, suit and all,” Stevens said.
It’s interesting to wonder where Keith Bogans is now. The rash of injuries would have opened up playing time for the disgruntled veteran, who left the team last week but will still be paid his $5 million salary. He definitely would have played Tuesday, which might have prevented Johnson from every getting his chance to showcase himself. Bogans’ departure may turn out to be not just Johnson’s gain, but Blue’s as well.