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Amir Johnson signing looks better with every passing day

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When the Celtics inked Johnson to the largest contract on their books back in July, their only outside signing of the offseason, many fans said, "that's it?" Almost a calendar year later, every aspect of the deal is coming full circle and starting to look like another fantastic move by Danny Ainge.

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"What!" I screamed out loud in my car as I reached for an ice cream in the McDonald's drive-though. The news had just broken across the radio: the Celtics had signed Amir Johnson to a two-year deal worth $24 million. The radio hosts were laughing hysterically, it was July 1, and that was Boston's idea of a splash? Even I was frustrated. Outside of re-signing Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko it would be the Cs lone free agency play of the offseason. No Tobias Harris, no Deandre Jordan, no Kevin Love.

The first thought that ran through my mind was the money. How were the Celts committing to a mid-level big man who is coming off a year where he seemed to be broken down? Toronto was probably laughing at the Cs for buying their spare parts while they signed Bismack Biyombo to play his role at a fraction of the price. Johnson was going to become the highest paid Celtic at $12 million over two years? It didn't make any sense.

That was the last day I questioned the Johnson signing, as it has looked better every day since.

Soon details emerged of the deal's fine print. The Celtics were committing to give Johnson a bunch of money up front in exchange for a team option on the second year of the deal. Danny Ainge would maintain flexibility by having a $12 million non-guarenteed contract on the books for next summer which can be either freed up as cap space or traded.

All of a sudden things didn't look so bad. Especially when I actually saw Johnson play for the first time in green. It became clear why Ainge rolled the dice on the veteran big man. Amir filled an immediate need that the Cs didn't have a year ago as a defensive interior presence, and his injuries and age allowed the Celts to maintain flexibility through a team-friendly contract at the same time. There was no splash to be made for Boston off their playoff sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers, but they were still able to build off it through an incredibly smart signing on two ends.

Now as the Celtics clinch a playoff spot for the second straight season and have already blown by the record of last year's team with six games remaining, one of the crucial variables to the equation has been the big man down the middle. We've seen both sides of the deal, the pluses and minuses that amounted a fantastic signing overall.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the consistent late-game disappearances of Johnson from December through early March corresponding to his plantar fasciitis that developed around Christmas. It seemed like the condition wasn't going anywhere until the season ended, then near-miracle news came up within a week: he was feeling better.

After the team surpassed the 40-win mark of the 2014-15 squad, Johnson confirmed my suspicions that the ailment had still been plaguing him:

Johnson downplayed any concerns until this weekend, when he finally admitted a bout with plantar fasciitis has bothered him more than he let on. In the same breath, he said he's feeling healthier now and no longer experiencing as much pain. It might be no coincidence that as he creeps closer to a clean slate of health, the big man has shown greater activity at both ends of the court.

It was in that game where we saw what he has been providing the team with all season, now on an elevated level thanks to logging 35 minutes, 11 points, 11 rebounds, and three blocks. His totals in those three areas are now up to 542, 476, and 77, respectively (7.3/6.4/1.0 per). A year ago Jared Sullinger led the Celtics with 465 rebounds, and Tyler Zeller's 52 blocks were a team-high, Johnson has flown past both of those totals.

That's where Johnson's presence has meant the world. Rebounding and blocking, two characteristics of a great team, have been such a distinct focus of his throughout his entire career, and the Cs were so empty in those two areas that his arrival alone has flipped the script upside down. He certainly isn't the sole reason the Celtics are immensely better in 2015-16 than they were a year ago, but he is a significant one.

Johnson's 5.4 win shares is third on the roster to only Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder, whose value to the Cs' success has been well documented. His player efficiency rating is 15.9, which is above Taj Gibson, Bradley Beal, Myles Turner, Timofey Mozgov, and yes, Biyombo too. Perhaps most importantly as the team has risen from 22nd in total defense to 13th this year, Johnson's defensive box plus-minus of 3.2 is by far the highest on the team and ranks 10th in the NBA.

That importance is evident, but none of it mattered when Johnson's aforementioned ailments kept him sidelined through key portions of games (in particular, late in the 2nd and 4th quarters). In fact from the end of the All-Star break through mid-March, he was last on the entire Celtics roster in 4th-quarter minutes per game. But with his health improving, his ability to impact the game through key moments is one of the most encouraging trends as the team heads into the playoffs with far better seeding and stability than last year's late-season Cinderella squad.

Since his enormous night against the Magic that may stand as the turning point for him when we look back at season's end, Johnson has averaged 27 minutes a game in seven contests while posting 8.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks per game through that stretch, all of which are above his season levels. He even devastated his old Raptors team with 11 points, 14 rebounds, and two blocks in the Celts' lone win over them on March 23. We've gotten the best of Johnson ever since I wrote that article on his struggles, and it's making me realize just how valuable he has been to this greatly improved team.

Just look at the Golden State game. His 7 points and 9 rebounds in the upset of the season didn't win the game for the Celtics, but it isn't the kind of presence they would have received from anyone else a year ago. Johnson does all the little things right at the center position, which hasn't seen a significant contributor since Kendrick Perkins was infamously traded away.

The contract only adds to the benefits that have yet to come. While the Cs dream of Kevin Durant or other significant difference-maker on the market, Johnson's flexible contract will mean the world. Boston can rid itself of $12 million off the books immediately or utilize it on draft night along with picks to bring a player the Celtics' way via trade.

Johnson isn't the long-term solution to the Celtics' interior production, but he was the answer this year and could be part of the process this offseason that brings in that younger or better option for Boston. With that in mind, when we look back at the Johnson signing in the summer of 2015, we won't be screaming in the McDonald's drive-through, we'll be saying "Wow, Danny really did it again."

Here's to more healthy Amir in the playoffs!