Three weeks into this condensed season, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was touting JaJuan Johnson as a player who would be a factor in the Celtics’ season. At that point, after 10 games, Johnson had exactly one NBA field goal.
It took until yesterday, but Johnson proved Thibodeau correct as the Celtics took a 95-91 win over the Bulls at TD Garden. Johnson scored 12 points, only 1 more than his previous season high in a mopup role against Toronto, but these points contributed to a victory.
Along the way, Johnson committed some rookie mistakes, fired up an airball, and was overmatched by the Bulls at times. But in the final quarter, Johnson was there to finish in transition, take a charge from Carlos Boozer, and even launch a perimeter jumper that provided an 11-point advantage with 3:29 remaining.
The performance showed significant improvement after Johnson had been the target of a tirade from coach Doc Rivers following a botched inbounds play during an 86-74 loss at Toronto Friday night.
In fact, only the absence of Brandon Bass (knee) and Jermaine O’Neal (shoulder) put Johnson in a position to redeem himself.
“But I wouldn’t expect it any other way,’’ Johnson said of Rivers’s criticism. “Throughout my whole basketball career, I’ve always had a coach that was tough. And I like it. It does nothing but motivate you.
“I know some people, they get yelled at they kind of get down. Me, it just makes me focus a little bit more and get locked in. So I have no problem with a coach yelling at me or telling me different things. It does nothing but help.
“Just reminded me of my college coach yelling. But it needed to be done, we weren’t doing what we were supposed to do. You don’t want a coach that just sits back and lets it happen. So it was a good thing and it just got everybody’s attention.’’
Most of the Celtics newcomers have attracted attention along the way: Bass; Johnson’s collegiate teammate, E’Twaun Moore; Chris Wilcox, also a subject of Rivers’s wrath in Toronto. This was Johnson’s turn.
“I knew just [yesterday], really,’’ Johnson said of his prospects of playing. “JO and Brandon were out, obviously that’s minutes somebody has to fill. So I was just happy I had the opportunity to play a little more.’’
Johnson has kept a low profile on a high-profile team. But his ability and eagerness to learn has made him a favorite pupil of Kevin Garnett and other veterans.
“Just their work ethic, the way those guys come out every day and play,’’ Johnson said. “Especially KG. I watch him every day and he goes full tilt in practice. Whatever it is, he does it with a purpose and I’m learning still, but that’s what I want to try for.
“We don’t practice much, but when we do he definitely is always there to help me out. And even during the middle of a game, he sees something I can do he definitely helps me out.’’
Not that Rivers was especially impressed.
“Yeah, but he’s got to keep doing it,’’ the coach said of Johnson. “One game doesn’t make a star. One season doesn’t make a star.
“So you’ve just got to keep doing it. And he’s got to do it consistently. He will, like I keep saying. He’s a great kid and he wants to do it. He’s young and he’s still learning focus and all that. But he’s a good player.’’
Johnson is comfortable running the court in transition and shooting elbow jumpers - he dropped in two in succession late in the opening half as a second option, the Bulls’ attention concentrated on Ray Allen. But against Chicago, Johnson was needed to defend against Boozer and Joakim Noah.
And, despite a weight disadvantage, Johnson was able stay with the bigger Bulls by using his quickness and reach.
In the final quarter, Johnson’s defending caused a Taj Gibson miss, leading to a Paul Pierce 3-pointer in transition. He then dunked a lob from Rajon Rondo, who followed with another lob to Wilcox for an 86-72 advantage with 5:08 remaining.
But that would be it for the easy scores in transition. The game then became a grind-it-out affair.
Johnson drew a charge from Boozer just before a C.J. Watson 3-pointer cut the Celtics’ lead to 9 points. Johnson then converted that perimeter jumper. Less than a minute later, he went to the bench as the veterans closed the game.
“The things that caused it was Doc telling everybody to run,’’ Johnson said. “We got easy buckets in transition, and when you get those transition buckets - dunks, layups - I think it gets the crowd into it, too. I think that was a big key in this game.
“I think just the more I play the more experience I get, it does nothing but help. I did get a little tired during a little stretch.
“But I ended up catching my second wind. I mean, you can get some easy buckets just by running. If you don’t get a bucket it seems like it helps your teammates get a bucket, so I try to do that as much as I can.
“I’m just happy to contribute to the team. Any rookie would be happy to just be out there and say they had a part of this team’s win.’’Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.