WALTHAM — In the first week of May, after the Celtics had regrouped from being swept out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers and completed their self-assessments, the staff gathered at the team’s training facility and focused on the future.
They spent two full days combing through lists of free agents and potential draft choices.
“And Amir’s name came up early and often as a target that we all thought would benefit our team,” said coach Brad Stevens.
Raptors forward Amir Johnson, who was an unrestricted free agent, had never averaged more than 10.4 points or 29 minutes per game during his 10-year career. But the Celtics were intrigued by the veteran because of the many ways he was capable of impacting a game. He is a strong defender and an active screener, and he is capable of scoring in a variety of ways without needing to be a focal point of the offense.
Johnson said he had conversations with Toronto about re-signing but nothing materialized.
“They obviously chose a different route,” he said.
So Johnson ultimately agreed to a two-year, $24 million deal with the Celtics. And on Friday night, in just the second game of this season, he will face his former team. He said he doesn’t expect it to be especially emotional or even strange, but he does think his knowledge could be useful to the Celtics.
“It’s going to be big, just knowing their tendencies, knowing which way they like to come off the screens, knowing when they’re going to shoot the ball,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely going to be to my advantage.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of trash talking between me and some of the guys. It’s going to be fun.”
Johnson said he plans to be more vocal than usual during this game, giving his new teammates clues about his old teammates’ preferences on the fly.
He spent six seasons in Toronto and helped the Raptors win the last two Atlantic Division titles. But they did not advance past the opening round of the playoffs in either season, including last year’s sweep by the Wizards.
During the offseason, the franchise underwent a bit of a makeover. Most notably, Johnson, forward Tyler Hansbrough and Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams departed, and former Hawks standout DeMarre Carroll was joined by Luis Scola and Cory Joseph as new arrivals.
“Every team goes through their ups and downs,” Johnson said. “I just think the organization wanted to make some changes, switch it up, and see what they can do different. But we accomplished a lot together.”
This year, the Celtics seem to have emerged as the Raptors’ primary competition for a division crown. Stevens said he has leaned on Johnson for some added intelligence, such as how he liked to play in the Toronto system and what he found most effective.
But Stevens is careful not to burden his players with trying to formulate a game plan, he said, because simply preparing for the game is enough responsibility. Also, the personnel changes are substantial enough that Johnson’s blueprints would be at least partially outdated.
“I think they’re really good,” Stevens said of the Raptors. “I think they’re flexible in how they can play. They can go big — four-deep into their bigs, five-deep into their bigs. They can go small with DeMarre Carroll at the 4, Patrick Patterson at the 4, sometimes Patterson at the 5.
“It creates havoc, it creates issues.
“At the end of the day, we all know that often times it boils down to guys that can lower their head and go get you a bucket, and they’ve got a couple of guys that can do that.”
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Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk, who on Wednesday served a one-game suspension for his altercation with Cavaliers forward Kevin Love in the playoffs last season, watched his team’s season-opening win against the 76ers at the training facility with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “He knows basketball,” Olynyk said. “He’s an intellectual guy, especially toward the game of basketball. So you can learn a lot from him.” . . . Celtics guard R.J. Hunter returned to practice Thursday after missing the 76ers game with an illness.