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Dennis Johnson spent seven years in the NBA before he became a member of the Boston Celtics. He played four seasons with the Seattle SuperSonics and three with the Phoenix Suns. His attitude became a problem with both teams, who each wound up trading the future Hall of Fame guard.

The Suns sent DJ to the Celtics for center Rick Robey in June 1983. With Johnson on board, the Celtics reached the NBA Finals in his first four seasons with the team. Although he said he never paid much attention to the Celtics before joining them, he had a connection to the team before getting there.

Dennis Johnson was the missing piece the Boston Celtics needed

Dennis Johnson of the Boston Celtics looks to pass the ball against the Milwaukee Bucks during an NBA game circa 1986 at the Boston Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

The Celtics were set up pretty well in the early ’80s. They drafted Larry Bird and then made one of the biggest trades in franchise history. Before the 1980 NBA Draft, the Celtics traded the No. 1 pick and the 13th pick to the Golden State Warriors. In return, Boston received center Robert Parish and the third pick. With that No. 3 pick, the Celtics selected Kevin McHale.

In their first year together, Bird, McHale, and Parish won the first of their three titles in the decade. They knocked off the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals. In 1982, however, the Philadelphia 76ers outlasted the Celtics in seven games in the conference finals. In 1983, the Milwaukee Bucks swept the Celtics in the conference semis.

The Celtics were good in the frontcourt but had issues at the guard position. Philadelphia’s Andrew Toney gave Boston fits, as did Milwaukee’s star Sidney Moncrief. The Celtics needed a defensive-minded guard and went out and made the deal for Johnson.

While Bird, Parish, and McHale got most of the credit, Johnson was a significant contributor to Boston’s 1984 and 1986 championships. In 1984, he came in and helped shut down Los Angeles Lakers guard Magic Johnson in the second half of the series. Johnson also scored 20-plus points in the final four games of the series after a cold shooting spell.

“He was one of the most underrated players in the history of the game, in my opinion, and one of the greatest Celtic acquisitions of all time,” said former teammate Danny Ainge, according to ESPN.

Johnson had a Celtics connection before arriving in Boston


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Johnson was a West Coast guy. He never gave a whole lot of thought to the Celtics while growing up or when he entered the NBA. He had an immediate connection to the franchise as soon as the Sonics drafted him with the 29th overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft.

The Sonics coach was the legendary Bill Russell.

Johnson said when he arrived in the NBA, he wasn’t sure he’d make it. He was intimidated by the former Celtics center, but DJ said he learned a lot from Russell.

“I wasn’t sure I belonged,” Johnson once said to Michael D. McClellan of Celtic Nation. “Having Bill Russell as my coach was intimidating, but he did a good job of pulling me aside and pointing things out. We talked a lot. That’s how I started learning the pro game, and my defense became very good.

“I started analyzing other players’ moves and tendencies and figuring out how to counter them. I didn’t follow the Boston Celtics all that much growing up, but I knew who Russell was and what the Celtics were accomplishing at that time. So when he talked to me about basketball, I definitely listened and tried to incorporate what he was saying.”

Johnson died in 2007 at the age of 52. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.