Skip to main content

After winning the NBA title in 1981, the Boston Celtics had a tough time getting back over the hump. Second-year player Larry Bird helped the Celtics knock off the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals, but then Boston struggled to make a return trip to the championship round. Enter Dennis Johnson.

The Celtics were an up-and-coming team but had trouble defending at the guard position. Andrew Toney of the Philadelphia 76ers and Sidney Moncrief of the Milwaukee Bucks gave them fits in 1982 and 1983. Boston swung a trade with the Phoenix Suns to acquire Johnson, a veteran guard with a defensive presence. It made all the difference in the world.

It’s no coincidence that when Dennis Johnson arrived, the Boston Celtics went to four straight NBA Finals

Dennis Johnson of the Boston Celtics dribbles the ball against the Washington Bullets during an NBA game circa 1983 at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images.

Bird won Rookie of the Year in 1980 and carried the Celtics to a 61-win season after Boston won just 29 games the previous year. The Celtics then pulled off a deal with the Golden State Warriors prior to the 1980 NBA Draft that forever changed the franchise. Boston held the top pick and traded it, along with the 13th pick, for veteran center Robert Parish and the third pick. At No. 3, the Celtics selected Kevin McHale.

In their first year together, Boston’s Big Three of Bird, McHale, and Parish won the first of three championships of the decade. Then they got stuck.

In 1982, Toney and the 76ers outlasted Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year, Moncrief and the Bucks swept the Celtics in the conference semis. Whether it was a panic move or not, Boston had to make a deal to shore up their backcourt.

Boston swung a deal with the Suns to bring in Johnson, a guard with a reputation for having an attitude problem. With Boston, Johnson quickly became a team player, and the Celtics became regulars in the NBA Finals.

Johnson was a ‘money player’ in Boston

Johnson came to Boston with a defensive mindset, hoping to shut down those tough Eastern Conference guards. Not only did he do that, but he also showed he could be an offensive force as well.

With Johnson starting alongside Danny Ainge in the backcourt, the Celtics gained revenge on the Bucks by knocking them off in five games in the ’84 conference finals. That set up the first of three NBA Finals meetings with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Celtics were completely outplayed in the first four games of the ’84 Finals but somehow managed to head back to Boston for Game 5 with the series tied at two games apiece. Part of that was because of an adjustment head coach K.C. Jones made with Johnson at halftime of Game 4. Johnson had been struggling on offense in the series, collecting just four points in Game 3. Jones made the move to have him focus his attention on stopping Lakers guard Magic Johnson.

“I thought I was into the game, but the first game in L.A. (Game 3) convinced me that I wasn’t,” said DJ, according to Sports Illustrated in 1984. “Even K.C. had to come over to ask if something was wrong. I told him that whatever it was, it wouldn’t be there again. I had been missing jump shots since January, and I knew why, but I never took the time to adjust. It was just a case of getting mentally and physically aggressive.”

Focusing on Magic helped him not overthink his offensive woes. While shutting him down, DJ also finished the game with 22 points. In the final three games of the series, he went for 22, 20, and 22 points.

Bird always said that Johnson always came up big when it counted most. In fact, Bird joked that DJ had a plan that he used for the playoffs.

“D.J. goes all season long, missing shots so they won’t guard him in the playoffs, so then he can open it up,” Bird said during the 1987 NBA Finals, per United Press International.

Rich Kelley, a former teammate of Johnson’s in Phoenix, agreed. He said Johnson was always better in the second half.

“He’s almost always better in the second half,” Kelley told Sports Illustrated in 1986. “He’s a great money player.”


Dennis Johnson: 5 Signature Moments From His Boston Celtics Career