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When the Boston Celtics acquired veteran guard Dennis Johnson prior to the 1983-84 NBA season, it filled a void. Johnson was a defensive-minded guard who could help shut down some of the best players in the league. When Johnson arrived in Boston, teaming with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish, the Celtics went to four straight NBA Finals.

Johnson came to Boston with the reputation of having an attitude problem. That never showed while in Boston. He and Bird became close. Bird could read Johnson on the court and said there was one way of knowing for sure when DJ knew they were playing in a game that meant something.

Larry Bird said Dennis Johnson was the best he ever played with

Larry Bird won the first of his three NBA championships in his second season in the league. For the next two seasons, they failed to return to the NBA Finals. In 1982, they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. The following year, they were embarrassingly swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals.

Boston didn’t have an answer for Philadelphia guard Andrew Toney. Bucks guard Sidney Moncrief gave the Celtics fits, too. The Celtics addressed that issue by trading for Johnson before the 1983-84 season.

In Johnson’s first season with the Celtics, Boston won the championship, defeating the rival LA Lakers in seven games. The Finals appearance was the first of four straight for Boston.

During a one-on-one interview with Magic Johnson in 2009, Bird gave the nod to Johnson when it came to being the best he’d ever played with.

“Probably Dennis Johnson, but it’s close between Kevin (McHale) and Dennis Johnson,” Bird told Magic. “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.”

Bird always knew when Johnson was playing in a big game


Larry Bird Admitted He Was Crushed By the 1983 Trade That Brought Dennis Johnson to the Boston Celtics

Bird always joked that DJ would miss shots on purpose in the regular season and then turn things up a notch in the playoffs. He said it was Johnson’s special plan.

“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 joked during the 1987 NBA Finals, per United Press International.

Bird and Johnson seemed to have a special connection on the court — a certain sense of what the other was thinking. That became evident in the 1987 conference finals against the Detroit Pistons. Bird’s improbable steal and assist to a cutting Johnson with five seconds left and the Celtics down a point is one of the biggest plays in franchise history. Johnson converted the layup, giving the Celtics the victory and a 3-2 series lead. Boston won the series in seven games.

Bird also said he could always tell when Johnson realized he was playing in a big game.

“During training camp (of the 1983-84 season), I discovered how well Dennis could take it to the basket,” Bird said in his book Drive: The Story of My Life. “He could drive on anybody, and if he didn’t make the basket, he would probably draw the foul.

“Over the years, I was to learn that the surefire way to know exactly what a game meant to DJ was to see how often he took it to the basket. When DJ takes it to the basket, it means he thinks it’s a big game, and you can count on him playing especially well.”