Larry Bird paid Dennis Johnson the best compliment when he said DJ was the best player he ever played with. Johnson was never the flashiest player in the NBA, nor was he a stats stuffer. He was the consummate professional who made his NBA living playing defense and making clutch shots. While Bird got most of the credit for the success of the Boston Celtics in the 1980s, it was Johnson who came through when it counted, especially in the 1984 NBA Finals.
Larry Bird knew the value of Dennis Johnson for the Boston Celtics
Johnson joined the Celtics for the 1983-84 season after spending the last three seasons with the Phoenix Suns. After winning the NBA title in 1981, the Celtics couldn’t get past the Philadelphia 76ers or the Milwaukee Bucks, so Red Auerbach made a move to get Johnson. After putting up 17.5 points per game with the Suns, DJ changed his game when he joined Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish.
Johnson became more of a true point guard, distributing the ball to arguably the best frontcourt in the NBA. He also was a defensive stopper, and it’s no coincidence the Celtics made a return trip to the NBA Finals in his first season with the team.
“Probably Dennis Johnson, but it’s close between Kevin (McHale) and Dennis Johnson,” Bird said. “They’re two different types of players. I always thought if we really needed something big, Dennis was always shooting 44 percent during the regular season and then 60 in the playoffs.
“Kevin was incredible. You know, you played against him. But D.J. was a guy I loved to play with. He thought the same way I did. and he was pretty good.”
Larry Bird was the MVP of the 1984 NBA Finals, but Dennis Johnson may have been the most important for the Celtics
The Celtics had to do something different as the 1984 NBA Finals wore on. The were beaten at home in Game 1 and then were outplayed in Game 2. If not for a steal by Gerald Henderson with 18 seconds left that sent the game into overtime, Boston would’ve been down 2-0 after two games at the Boston Garden. In Game 3, the Lakers blew the doors off the Celtics, winning 137-104.
At halftime of Game 4, Celtics coach K.C. Jones made a switch. He had the 6-foot-4 Johnson guard Magic, the Lakers’ 6-foot-9 playmaker. DJ, who had a horrible offensive output in Game 3 with four points, seemed to get into a rhythm offensively while he was playing the role of defensive specialist. He had been struggling with his shooting throughout the postseason. Focusing on guarding Magic allowed him to not overthink his offensive game.
“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.”
Starting with Game 4, Johnson lit it up on offense, scoring 22, 22, 20 and 22 points in the final four games, three being Celtics wins.
Johnson was the unsung hero for the Celtics during their ’80s dominance
After winning the NBA championship in 1981, the Celtics went to the NBA Finals four straight years from 1984-87. They had five Finals appearances and three titles in the decade. While Bird deservedly got much of the credit for the success, DJ was the unsung hero.
Overshadowed by the frontcourt of Hall of Famers, Johnson was more than just a standout in the 1984 series. In 1985, Johnson scored 27 points and hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer in a Game 4 win that evened the series. DJ passed the ball to Bird in the waning seconds. After Magic went to double Bird, DJ caught a return pass and buried his dagger.
“They loved to run Larry on that, so I stunted toward him,” Magic told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “You can’t let Larry have it in that situation. And then I just couldn’t get back to DJ in time.”
In ’86, DJ was part of one of the best Celtics teams of all time. Boston won its third title of the decade, defeating the Houston Rockets in six games. In ’87, he scored the winning basket in a pivotal Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons. He took a pass from Bird, who stole the inbounds pass, and scored with one second left in a one-point Celtics win.
Johnson died in 2007. He was coaching the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League and collapsed after a team practice. DJ was 52.
“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.