Dennis Johnson Crumbled On the Big Stage, and It Eventually Turned Him Into an MVP
Some players struggle on the big stage, and they’re never heard from again. Dennis Johnson made sure that never happened. While Johnson is known for winning two of his three championships with the Boston Celtics, he reached the NBA Finals twice with the now-defunct Seattle SuperSonics.
During Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals against the Washington Bullets, Johnson had arguably the worst game of his NBA career, and the Sonics lost. The following season, the two teams squared off again for the championship, and redemption was his.
Dennis Johnson overcame the odds to win three NBA championships
Dennis Johnson didn’t take the typical path to the NBA. He wasn’t heavily recruited in high school and graduated without an offer. Instead, he worked several jobs and played streetball. After graduation, however, he had a growth spurt that helped land him a spot on a team at a local community college.
Despite clashing with the coaches, he played well and earned an offer from Pepperdine University, where he played one season and averaged 15.7 points. Known as a strong defender, Johnson was selected by the Sonics in the second round of the 1976 NBA Draft.
Johnson continued to clash with coaches when he reached the NBA, developing a reputation for being a problem in the locker room. According to Sports Illustrated, he was labeled a “cancer” by then-Sonics coach Lenny Wilkens. Seattle shipped him off to the Phoenix Suns, where he also struggled to mesh with coach John MacLeod.
The Suns traded him to Boston for center Rick Robey before the 1983-84 season. SI reported the Suns made the trade because his “attitude didn’t fit into their disciplined system.”
Phoenix’s loss was Boston’s gain. After winning the championship in 1981, the Celtics were ousted by the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference finals in ’82. The Milwaukee Bucks swept them in the semis in ’83. Boston struggled to defend guards like Philly’s Andrew Toney and Milwaukee’s Sidney Moncrief, and the Celtics brought in the defensive-minded Johnson.
In Johnson’s first year with the Celtics, they won their second title in the ’80s. They reached the championship round in DJ’s first four seasons with the team and won again in 1986. In his seven seasons with the Celtics, he averaged 12.6 points, 6.4 assists, and was a shutdown defender. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Johnson went 0-for-14 in Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals
In the 1978 NBA Finals, Johnson’s Sonics squared off against the Bullets. In a tight series, the Sonics held a 3-2 series lead. Through six games, neither team won back-to-back games. After the Bullets evened the series at 3-3 with a convincing 117-82 win at home, the series shifted to Seattle for a winner-take-all Game 7.
For the first time in the series, the road team escaped with a victory as Washington pulled out a 105-99 win to capture the championship. Seattle was led by Marvin Webster, who poured in a game-high 27 points and pulled down a game-best 19 rebounds. While Webster lit it up, Johnson struggled mightily. He missed all 14 of his shots from the floor and finished with four points.
“I went home that summer and did everything in my power to keep that from ever happening again,” Johnson told Michael D. McClellan of Celtic Nation in 2002. “It was an embarrassing experience to play so poorly, especially in a situation of that magnitude. I choked. I’d never played on a stage that big, not with 15,000 people in an arena, but it motivated me and made me stronger.”
As fate would have it, the teams met again the following season, giving Johnson a chance at redemption. He took full advantage.
After Washinton won the series opener, Seattle won four straight, clinching its first and only NBA title. Johnson averaged 22.6 points in the series but made his mark on defense. He blocked 11 shots in the five games and was named Finals MVP.
“That first championship was the best,” Johnson told McClellan. “That feeling can’t be duplicated. That Sonics team was so young and talented and had all the makings of a dynasty. I remember all the talk was about repeating as champions. One of my greatest disappointments was not being able to win back-to-back championships in Seattle.”