When the Celtics signed Joe Johnson to a 10-day contract via a hardship exception last Wednesday, it was a feel-good moment in a season that has mostly been devoid of them.
The Celtics selected Johnson with the 10th pick of the 2001 draft, but he played just half a season for them before being traded to the Suns. He eventually turned into a seven-time All-Star, and now he was back where it all started, more than three years since he last played in an NBA game.
The 40-year-old Johnson delighted the TD Garden crowd when he checked in for the final two minutes of a win over the Cavaliers last Wednesday and hit a trademark mid-range jumper.
Despite the fact that the Celtics remain considerably undermanned because of COVID-related absences, Johnson has not played since. But coach Ime Udoka said that Johnson’s value over the past week has been clear, particularly during film sessions, where “his voice and leadership have been apparent.”
At 35, Al Horford is one of this team’s elder statesmen. But he remembers when he was a rookie with the Hawks in 2007-08, and Johnson served as one of that team’s leaders. The two were teammates there for five seasons, and Johnson was an All-Star each year.
Johnson’s role is far different now, of course. But Horford said that plenty remains the same.
“Just his work ethic, it’s unmatched,” Horford said. “He’s as hard a worker as I’ve seen. Just his knowledge, he just wants to give knowledge to the younger guys.”
The Celtics will soon have to decide whether Johnson’s second stint in Boston will end as an endearing 10-day stop, or continue on as something more. Johnson, C.J. Miles, Justin Jackson, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Norvel Pelle have all been signed using hardship exceptions, and the Celtics are gradually getting players back from COVID protocols.
But Horford, for one, believes that in addition to the valuable role as a mentor that Johnson has embraced, he still has something to offer on the court, too.
“He understands what he can be,” Horford said. “I believe he can still play. He can still play. He’s not just here just because. It’s good to have him here and hopefully we see what happens with him. But he’s a guy that, I’m really happy we have him and we have him around. Just a really good veteran, good guy.”
Troubling night for Robert Williams
The Celtics were missing nine players against the Timberwolves Monday, so it was important for those who were available to stay available. But that was an issue for fourth-year center Robert Williams, who was limited to 22 minutes because he struggled with foul trouble.
“As important as he is to us, with guys being out and guys just returning, he kind of took himself out of the game,” Udoka said. “So just game plan, attention to detail, know who you’re guarding is what we want to live with.”
Midway through the first quarter, Williams collected his second foul when he slid over to help on a Jake Layman drive and was left out of position when a pass was dumped to his man, Nathan Knight, in the post. Williams bit on a pump fake and fouled Knight as he converted a 3-point play. He went to the bench soon after.
With just under three minutes left in the third quarter, Williams had four fouls when he carelessly reached in to swipe the ball away from Layman on a drive. He was whistled for his fifth and went to the bench with Boston holding a 77-67 lead. When he returned midway through the fourth quarter, the Celtics trailed, 88-84.
“The majority of them were leaving his feet on, quite frankly, a guy that we want to shoot jump shots,” Udoka said. “And so he left the floor a few times and got early fouls there, and when you have four fouls, you can’t reach in and get your fifth that early in the game.”
Returns on the way
The Celtics are in position to get some reinforcements for Wednesday’s home game against the Clippers. Guard Josh Richardson is no longer in COVID protocol and could return. Marcus Smart, who missed the Timberwolves game with a hand laceration, is questionable. Jayson Tatum, Aaron Nesmith, Enes Freedom, Bruno Fernando, Dennis Schröder and Miles remain out because of COVID protocol.