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Remembering Boston great Dennis Johnson

How DJ became one of the most clutch, underrated Celtics of all time


Bob Cousy, six rings. Bill Russell, 11 banners in 13 years, 10-0 in seventh games. Sam Jones (9-0 in seventh games, with a 27 points per game average in those pressure games), 10 titles. Tom Heinsohn and John Havlicek, eight crowns apiece.

Dave Cowens. Larry Bird. Kevin McHale. Paul Pierce. Nine more banners with an endless highlight reel of big shots, blocks, steals, rebounds and passes between them.

The list of great clutch Celtic players is a who's who of NBA history. But one of the greatest to don the green and white in crunch time was a former Sonic and Sun guard who would never even have played college ball, if not for fate and an unlikely growth spurt.

Perhaps even more unlikely than the roads taken to hoops immortality by Russell and Bird, Dennis Wayne Johnson rode one of the most improbable, circuitous routes to the Hall of Fame.

A 5-9 benchwarmer at Dominguez High School in Compton, California, the red-afroed and freckled Johnson grew seven inches after graduating. Noticed by chance in a pickup game, he was given a chance to play at Los Angeles Harbor junior college by coach Jim White, where his game continued to blossom.

His shooting ability was raw, as witnessed by his 56 percent Div. I foul shooting, and he admitted to being a bit of a "wild stallion", but he continued to improve. Yet he clashed with White, and was tossed off the LAH team by him three times in his two seasons, where he averaged 18 points and 12 rebounds a game.

Rising young coach Gary Colson saw his potential and signed him to play at Pepperdine. The only other school to offer a scholarship to DJ, who had earned the reputation of being difficult, was Azusa-Pacific.

In just one varsity Div. I season, Johnson averaged 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, helping the Waves go 22-6 and reach the sweet 16. All while jumping center despite being just 6-4 due to his fine leaping ability and unusually long arms.

Celtic legend Bill Russell, who was coaching the Seattle SuperSonics in the mid-1970's, saw DJ play on the west coast and immediately recognized his defensive prowess and enormous potential.

Perhaps as a late-blooming defensive great, he even saw some of himself in Johnson.

Dennis helped Pepperdine reach the 1976 NCAA tournament, and played well vs. defending champion UCLA, garnering some notice that would have been unthinkable four years before.

In the first round Pepperdine beat Memphis State 87-77 as DJ scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and passed out five assists.

At the regional semifinals vs. the vaunted Bruins, who were in their first season after the retirement of legendary coach John Wooden, DJ scored 16 points and grabbed six boards as the Waves played UCLA tough before falling, 70-61.

Russell and the Sonics made the virtually unknown Johnson a second round hardship draft pick in 1976, as he went 29th overall. DJ's parents' house had burned down in a fire.

He spent his rookie season coming off the bench for Russell on a 40-42 Seattle team. They next year, Seattle got off to a 5-17 start and Lenny Wilkens took over as coach.

The former star playmaker inserted Johnson into the starting lineup, and along with equally unheralded 6-11 rookie Jack Sikma and backcourt mate Gus Williams, Dennis led the Sonics to a 42-18 record the rest of the way.

With defending champion Portland racked by injuries after a spectacular 50-10 start (most notably to league MVP and future Celtic teammate Bill Walton), Seattle upset their Pacific Northwest rivals in the playoffs and advanced to the NBA Finals against another upstart, the 44-38 Washington Bullets.

In a series featuring three key Johnson's (John, Dennis and Charlie) CBS play by play man Brent Musburger gave Dennis the abbreviated nickname DJ to make it easier to identify the players.

The moniker stuck.

Dennis led Seattle to the precipice of an unlikely crown and a 3-2 series lead. But in game seven he shot 0 for 14 from the field and the veteran Bullets, led by Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge, won a close battle to take the title in their third trip to the Finals of the decade.

Embarrassed by his historically bad shooting in game seven, DJ vowed to never come up short in the clutch again, worked on his game and pretty much kept his promise.

Yet now everyone in basketball knew who DJ was. No guard has ever been as good a shot blocker as Dennis. He swatted 788 shots in his pro career, including an incredible seven in one Finals game vs. the Bullets.

The next year he came back better and more determined, as well as more seasoned. In the 1979 Finals Seattle met Washington in a championship rematch, and this time the Sonics won 4-1.

DJ was named Finals MVP, capping a season that saw him make the first of five All-Star showings and eight all-defense selections.

Having scaled the mountaintop, the next season Dennis began to show his wild stallion tendencies. After achieving an improbable amount of success not long after being a 5-9 high school non-contributor, he got a bit cocky and complacent, gained a little weight and began shooting too much.

He was named second team all-league and all-defense, scored 19 ppg, but shot just 42 percent from the field.

One highlight of that season came in a January 20 Super Bowl Sunday CBS game at Boston during Bird's rookie season. The defending champions were on the verge of a loss when DJ nailed a long right wing three-pointer at the buzzer to tie the contest, which the Sonics eventually won in a double overtime classic, 108-106.

Seattle lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the Western Conference finals, and DJ took a lot of the blame for the collapse. The likeable, well-respected Wilkens labeled DJ a "cancer" after he openly defied the Hall of Fame player-coach.

Needing more offense and tired of the squabbling, Seattle dealt DJ to Phoenix in the celebrated "changing of the (All-Star) guards" deal for Paul Westphal in the off-season.

Dennis led Phoenix to the best record in the West in 1980-81 at 57-25, as the Lakers and Sonics struggled following injuries to stars Earvin Johnson and Westphal, as well as a season-long holdout by Williams. DJ earned the only first team all-league honor of his career.

However, Phoenix was upset in the western semifinals by Kansas City and future Celtic teammate Scott Wedman, 4-3. DJ led the Suns with 19.6 ppg in the series, including a game-high 28 points in the 95-88 game seven upset loss at home, but it was not enough.

Two more solid seasons in the Valley of the Suns never led to playoff success, and his name was mentioned in a Maricopa County drug sting operation.

Though he proclaimed his innocence and was never proven guilty of the drug charges, just being associated with the investigation tainted DJ's already difficult reputation.

Bird returned the buzzer-beating favor to DJ on Feb. 26, 1983. With the score tied and a second left, Larry took an in-bounds pass from Cedric Maxwell, turned and launched a ridiculous one-footed, 22-foot right side bomb that arched so high it seemingly brushed the rafters.

The shot swished so perfectly through the cords at the buzzer that the net barely moved, punctuating a thrilling 103-101 win at Phoenix.

The last of his 38 points were so amazing that it led one to wonder if Bird had made a deal with the devil.

"It was so quiet in there (after the incredible shot) that you could have heard a mouse pee on cotton," recalled Maxwell.

After watching the improbable winning bomb from near the hoop, DJ took a quick look over his shoulder at Bird, who was high-tenned by Maxwell and celebrated in front of the Suns bench, who had foolishly taunted the master just moments before.

Dennis gave a quick, disbelieving shake of his head and stalked off the court in a hurry as if to shake himself of the loss as quickly as possible, seemingly amazed at the audacity of someone taking such a shot - and making it.

Little did he know that he would be Bird's trusted teammate in less than a year.

In 1982-83 his scoring average plummeted from 19.5 ppg to 14.2, and some around the league viewed him as damaged goods. Whispers followed that he had slowed down, was hard to coach, moody, and needed constant kid glove treatment.

The Celtics, almost certainly on the advice of Russell, swooped in and sent underused backup center Rick Robey plus two draft picks to the Suns to obtain the big defensive guard they so desperately needed.

The Celtics had been getting torched by shooting guards Andrew Toney and Sidney Moncrief in the East, and also needed a big defensive ace to negate the Lakers' Johnson in case they met in the Finals.

It turned out to be one of the greatest deals in Red Auerbach's tapestry of steals. But at the time it wasn't considered as one-sided as the trade became. Robey was considered by many the best backup center in the NBA and DJ's legacy had been tarnished significantly by subpar play in 1983 and the drug rumors.

But in Boston, DJ turned over a new leaf and chapter in his career. No longer expected to be his team's top player, he fell in line behind Larry Bird, who called DJ "the best player I ever played with...and probably the one guy as intense or more intense about winning than me."

Dennis and Larry developed an almost immediate synchronicity. DJ repeatedly hit him with perfectly-timed backcut passes for layups and other feeds for his feathery jump shot. Dennis almost never missed when Larry fed him his always-on target passes, firm but soft to his teammate, in stride and in the shooting pocket.

The belated switch of DJ onto Earvin Johnson midway through the classic 1984 Finals during their first season together turned the series around, not the McHale clothesline of Kurt Rambis, as lazy revisionist history has come to claim, furthered by Laker sour grapes.

A review of the tape shows Jabbar had thrown an elbow near the head of Gerald Henderson moments before, and James Worthy had also thrown elbows aroudn wildly in a childish tantrum after a loose ball scrum in the same game.

Plus, earlier in those playoffs the Knicks had instituted a no-layup policy vs. Boston that resulted in an Ernie Grunfeld takedown of McHale. Then in game six a brutal tackle and punch to the head of Bird from behind as he went in at full speed for a fast break layup by Ray Williams AND Rory Sparrow led to Sparrow's ejection - and a near maiming of Bird, who never complained, got up bleeding and canned both foul shots.

Thus, the physical tone had been set far before the McHale takedown in the 1984 playoffs. Later in that fourth game, Jabbar elbowed Bird in the face on a backswing after an offensive rebound. Earlier in game two, Bob McAdoo had kneed Bird in the groin on a drive to the basket as well.

Boston dominated the last 3.5 games of that seven-game epic, and the pivotal defensive assignment picked up the proud DJ's offense, too.

For that stopper role was exactly what Dennis, who had knocked heads with Earvin in LA first with Seattle and again in Phoenix, lived for. He wanted revenge for losing the title belt to Earvin and LA in the 1980 WCF, which spelled the end of his career in Seattle.

"Don't get lazy on him," exhorted coach K.C. Jones, himself a former backcourt defensive wizard. "Pressure him." And DJ did. Perhaps the late switch was the clever K.C.'s way of resting and motivating Dennis. But it almost came too late.

Dennis the defensive menace averaged 17.6 ppg in the Finals, a number upped considerably to 21.5 ppg over the final four games, three of which Boston won. Before the switch, DJ scored just 12.3 ppg and shot a meager 13 of 38 from the floor (34 percent).

When the Celtics - and even a towel-waving Bird - started to celebrate a title prematurely due to a double-digit lead early in the fourth period of game seven, it was DJ who angrily pulled his temamates off the court and into a huddle. He reminded them to re-focus, knowing it wasn't over.

In game four of the 1980 WCF his Sonics had given up a late 24-0 LA run to blow a big lead and essentially the series, down 3-1. He was not going to allow that to happen again, although it nearly did as the Celtics began to play the clock, lost their aggression and momentum, while the desperate Lakers rallied.

But in the final minute of game seven, DJ came up with a huge defensive play to save the day.

With the Lakers down only 105-102 with 45 seconds left, Earvin Johnson drove toward the lane. DJ got into perfect position, and used his long arms and anticipation to cleanly poke the ball away while avoiding body contact.

He then chased down the loose ball, dribbled furiously downcourt to force the issue, and was fouled by Michael Cooper on a driving layup. DJ calmly stroked both free throws to stymie the late LA rally.

He shot a perfect 12-12 from the foul line in the pressure-packed contest and helped limit his namesake to just five of 14 shooting from the field.

Bird canned four more foul shots in a row to clinch the memorable 111-102 victory, and clearly earned Finals MVP honors. Yet it was DJ whose clutch defensive play had saved the game, as he perfectly fulfilled the role of stopper the Celtics had acquired him for.

In 1985, the Lakers turned the tables on Boston in the championship series, winning 4-2. DJ averaged 16 points and 9.5 assists but injuries to Bird and Maxwell greatly hampered Boston's chance to repeat.

But not before Dennis hit the biggest clutch shot of the series. In a backs-to-the-wall fourth game at a hostile Forum, Boston trailed 90-83 and 2-1 in games. Staring an insurmountable 1-3 deficit directly in the face with game five upcoming at LA under the new 2-3-2 format, a clutch Bird flurry and two long shots by Ainge helped tie it, 105-105.

Everyone in the Forum and millions watching on TV expected Bird to take the last shot as Boston patiently unfolded its plan for the final possession of regulation. Larry walked through the lane along the baseline and curled around a screen to take a pass from DJ.

As Bird dribble-penetrated the circle going to his left, Worthy and Earvin Johnson double-teamed him. Larry calmly avoided the swipe try of Johnson and after splitting the double cleverly, whipped a perfect no-look pass back and behind himself to the left to an open Dennis, who had been recklessly abandoned by Earvin.

DJ did not hesitate and let fly with a 21-footer that sailed toward the hoop and swished through the cords as time expired to give Boston a thrilling 107-105 victory.

"Boston wins the all-important fourth game," exclaimed legendary Celtic announcer Johnny Most as Bird high-fived Quinn Buckner in jubilation at center court before a stunned Laker crowd.

That Bird trusted Dennis to take and make such a momentous shot shows how much faith he had in DJ as a clutch shooter. Normally Bird lived to take the game-winning shot. But he knew that even though Dennis was a mediocre outside shooter most of the time, in the clutch DJ was usually money, especially when Larry Legend fed him the ball.

It was as if Dennis did not want to let Bird down by missing, and concentrated that much harder in the crunch. Larry might have tried a runner from the foul line had he not been doubled, but he quickly surmised that the better shot was to give it to DJ, and he delivered.

With the addition of Walton as sixth man and a return to health by three-time MVP Bird in 1986, Boston rolled to a 67-15 record and a 16th banner. DJ won his third ring and was all-defense again.

In 1987, the injury-riddled Celtics made perhaps their guttiest run to the Finals through a brutal gauntlet. Late in game seven of the eastern semis vs. Milwaukee, the Celtics trailed by nine and appeared on the verge of blowing a 3-1 lead for the first time in franchise history.

But then Dennis came up with one of the biggest and most timely defensive gems of his career.

He blocked former Sonic teammate Jack Sikma's patented step-back baseline jumper, then as the ball bounded toward the Buck bench, DJ jumped over the metal chairs and knocked the ball out of bounds off Sikma.

The spectacular save helped propel Boston to a nearly miraculous comeback win, 119-113. Frantic Celtic defense, inspired by DJ, held the Bucks to just three free throws over the final five minutes while Bird swished six in a row.

In the pivotal fifth game of the ensuing vicious 1987 eastern finals vs. Detroit, Bird made his historic steal in the closing seconds with Boston down a point and looking at a nearly-certain 2-3 deficit heading to the Silverdome.

But it was DJ who also anticipated his epic backcourt swipe, cut straight to the hoop, took a perfect feed from the master and executed a tougher-than-it-appeared right-handed layup from the left side high off the glass, all with just a second left.

"Aaaannnd now there's a steal by Bird, underneath to DJ who lays it in right with one second left...oh my this place is going crazy," screamed Most in one of his most famous calls.

As everyone in the Boston Garden went nuts, the two ultimate competitors on that Celtic team kept playing. Keeping his head, Bird smartly ran back on defense while DJ jammed the in-bounds passer, not allowing the Pistons to get an easy pass in while the ancient stadium rocked as it had few times before, forcing a timeout.

The intense duo, never very outwardly emotional, showed it for once at this point. As Bird walked to the bench, DJ waited and gave him a come here wave with both hands before embracing Larry with a big hug.

As All-Star center Bob Lanier later noted, "it was like DJ was in Bird's head on that play...he knew right where to cut."

Johnson later admitted it was the favorite play of his storied 15-year career, and it remains one of the greatest single plays in a Celtic history overloaded with remarkable happenings.

"I just saw the flash of a white jersey and of course it was DEE-jay," explained Bird in his southern Indiana accent of the pass that catapulted Boston to an incredible fourth Eastern title in a row.

Incredible because back then, the East was far, far better than the West. Almost the opposite of now. Four of the top five teams of the 1980's were in the East after Milwaukee was moved from the West in 1980: Boston, LA, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Detroit.

Similar to the Heat in recent years, the 1980's Lakers had a relative cakewalk to the Finals almost every year compared to Boston.

In 1987 just for example, Boston beat Jordan and the Bulls in the first round, outlasted 50-32 Milwaukee in seven games over 14 days, then took out the young, 54-28 Pistons in seven brutal contests over just 12 days.

Meanwhile, the Lakers rolled over a 37-45 Denver team, beat 42-40 Golden State in five and swept a 39-43 Seattle upstart team in the WESTERN FINALS! That's right, 39-43. Arguably, the Bulls team Boston swept in round one was as good as or better than anyone LA beat out West.

Almost 33, DJ still averaged 41.9 minutes per game over 23 grueling playoff games during the unusually hot spring and early summer of 1987. His total minutes played were second only to Bird's ironman record of 1,015.

Dennis scored 18.9 ppg that post-season, and saved his highest-scoring game of the entire season for the championship series finale.

In game six at Los Angeles, DJ fired in a season-high 33 points on 11-22 shooting from the floor and perfect 11-11 free throw shooting, and was the lone Celtic on the leg-weary club to play well.

He drove fearlessly into the lane, scoring over the 7-2 Jabbar, hitting long shots and off balnce drives. DJ went down swinging, head held high.

With McHale, Bird, Parish, Ainge and Walton all hobbling, and Wedman out all season, Dennis carried the load in the finale. But it was not enough as a carefully-built 56-51 halftime lead dissolved in a disastrous 30-12 third period as the rested and healthier Lakers literally ran away on a barrage of breaks for a 106-93 clincher.

In the title series, DJ averaged 21 points and 9.3 assists per game while shooting 89 percent from the foul line and 48 percent from the field.

It would be the last of his six Finals trips as a player, where his teams went 3-3. How valuable was Dennis? Immediately after acquiring DJ, Boston went to four consecutive NBA Finals, winning twice. Injuries and the death of sure-fire star Len Bias kept it from very possibly being four or more in a row.

Dennis then began to slow down. His ever-widening waistline and advancing age robbed him of the quickness he possessed as a Sonic and Sun, but he was still one of the smartest and best defensive guards in the NBA. He always had an unusual build; long arms, a protruding chest and stomach, and a backside that increasingly stuck out in the other direction.

Boston got to the eastern finals for the eighth time in the first nine years of the Bird era in 1988, but this time the younger, deeper Pistons found a way to oust the aging Celtics.

The next season, Bird went down with double Achilles surgery and Boston barely made the playoffs. Larry returned with a strong comeback season in 1989-90, and the Celts had hopes of another deep playoff run. But they were upset by the Knicks after blowing a 2-0 lead.

Fittingly, in the last game of his career in the 1990 playoffs, Dennis scored 21 points as the Celtics lost at home to a 45-37 New York club playing loose and above its head. DJ's 21-point, 10-assist, five-rebound game was reminiscent of the Knickerbocker hero of his youth, Walt Frazier.

DJ's idol growing up was the mutton-chopped Knick great, and he patterned his cool, clutch game after the poker-faced superstar backcourt ace.

California kid Dennis used to sneak into the Forum to watch Jerry West and the Lakers take on Clyde and those fabulous Knicks, who met LA three times in memorable Finals in 1970, '72 and '73. Perhaps that is one reason that DJ saved some of his best games for the Forum that he haunted as a kid.

Like Dennis, the stylish Clyde was a versatile 6-4 guard who could handle the ball well and run the point or swing to off guard, passed very well, scored at a high rate (although Walt was a better shooter), rebounded well and most of all, defended superbly. And both were among the best ever in the clutch.

Ironically, when DJ retired the man just ahead of him on the all-time NBA scoring list was his hero. Dennis scored 15,535 career regular season points, while Frazier netted 15,581, just 46 more. Twenty-four years later, Walt ranks 113th on the all-time points list, with Dennis close behind at 116th.

DJ made eight all-defense teams, while Clyde made seven. But Dennis bested his hoops hero in titles won, three to two. Long-time Laker rival Earvin Johnson called DJ the "best backcourt defender of all time" after he hung it up for good in 1990.

After retiring, DJ was a long-time NBA assistant coach who had an 8-16 stint as Clipper head man in 2002-03. Sadly, he died of a heart attack suffered at just age 52 on February 22, 2007 - in a gym while coaching the Austin Toros of the NBA Developmental League.

DJ was posthumously inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2010. Teammate Walton was one of the most outspoken among the many in the basketball community outraged that it took so long for Dennis to be so honored.

His nephew Nick Johnson was Pac-12 Player of the Year last season after leading Arizona to a 33-5 record, number one status for part of the season and an NCAA elite eight showing. Nick, like DJ, is a high-flying 6-3 defensive ace, an erratic shooter who is tough in the clutch.

In a hard-fought 2014 NCAA Sweet 16 battle with San Diego State, Nick was scoreless until the final two minutes. Then he poured in 15 points, including 10 in a row at the charity stripe, to give Arizona a 70-64 win.

Clutch play sound familiar?

Not coincidentally the Houston Rockets, coached by former DJ teammate Kevin McHale, selected Nick early in the second round of the draft (also like his uncle, as an early entry), where he is expected to make the team.

Former Celtic backcourt mate Ainge called DJ "one of the most underrated players of all time, and one of the greatest Celtic acquisitions."

Even hated foe Bill Laimbeer of the Pistons called Dennis "a great player on a great ballclub."

Appropriately, the Celtics retired DJ's number three jersey and it hangs next to number 33 in the rafters. Two of the greatest Celtics in the clutch, and probably the most clutch along with Pierce and McHale since the Havlicek era.

Having them memorialized side by side high above the court will always help keep alive the memory of the greatest play they ever authored together.

It was an epic, instinctive display of clutch heart, skill and competitive determination of the highest order that embodied Celtic pride.

Bird's timely steal/pass plus DJ's great cut and layup won game five in the final seconds of the 1987 conference finals (arguably the most contentious in league annals), and drove a stake into the heart of Detroit just as the sun appeared ready to go down on the Celtic dynasty.


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