On a day prior to when Ben Wallace, his mentor from years ago, gets his number retired in Detroit, Amir Johnson is now the “old head” on the Celtics, wearing a heating pad on his left foot as he sat the entire second quarter.
The left foot has been painful most of the season, and the 28-year-old Johnson, who entered the NBA one month after his 18th birthday and has flourished as a dirty-work big man, continues to chug through the pain.
He is playing his best basketball of the season, finally gaining comfort in Boston after six years in Toronto. He played just 19 minutes Friday in the Celtics’ 117-103 win over the outclassed Phoenix Suns, but scored 13 points with five rebounds.
What’s more, in the 11 games since he missed two games to rest the plantar fasciitis in his left foot, Johnson is averaging 10.8 points and 8.1 rebounds with 68.7 percent shooting (55 for 80).
He has played with more energy and athleticism, using his length to slap out rebounds to teammates and his feathery touch to score on jump hooks. The Celtics need a rim protector, an elite defender who can also grab rebounds, and Johnson has filled that role over the past two weeks.
Despite the Celtics’ recent losing skid, Johnson has continued to improve and there may be no more critical stretch in the season than the next few weeks as they attempt to emerge from the pack in the Eastern Conference.
“He’s been really good,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It was to not have to play him too much. But he’s a good player and I just think he’s getting more comfortable playing with us, playing in our system. You know he’s only been here a couple of months.”
Stevens said he watched video of Isaiah Thomas during his first game as a member of the Celtics — coincidentally against the Suns, his former team — and noticed how tentative he looked compared with now.
“Even though he was doing some dynamic things that were catching all of our attention, it took him a while to be comfortable on both ends of the floor,” Stevens said. “That’s part of Amir’s transition here. But he’s doing great. He’s really had a good last couple of weeks.”
It’s taken time for Johnson to provide what the Celtics expected when they signed him to his two-year, $24 million contract. His production has allowed Stevens to become more consistent with his rotation.
David Lee and Tyler Zeller have had to sit as Stevens has been going with Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Jared Sullinger. Since Jan. 2, Stevens has increased Johnson’s minutes and he has scored in double figures in seven of eight games.
“Just finding my way, staying true to myself,” Johnson said of his recent improved play. “Doing what I do on offense, which is set good screens and roll [to the basket] and at the same time we’re playing within the flow of our offense. Just sticking to what I do best, run the floor, the hustle plays, rebounds, putbacks, finding my way.”
What makes Johnson different from most players who entered the draft out of high school is that he never carried visions of superstardom. Johnson has lasted so long in this league — 41 of the 60 players drafted in 2005 are no longer in the NBA — is embracing the less-glamorous workmanlike role.
Johnson relishes hard screens, the tip-in, or saving a rebound. He enjoys his anonymity, but his teammates appreciate his valuable role.
“I see him just playing with a lot more energy,” forward Jae Crowder said of Johnson. “We didn’t tell him to change anything, but he’s been on himself to rev up his energy. He’s rolling hard to the basket and now teams have to react to him. That’s making our shooters get open for extra shots and he’s getting some shots at the rim.
“Coach [Stevens] pointed out to us in Memphis that he’s the most efficient offensive player that we have. We’re aware of it and we’re trying to get him the ball in his spots.”
Stevens is correct. Johnson leads the Celtics in offensive efficiency, as the team scores 115 points per 100 possessions that he’s on the floor. Thomas and Crowder are at 112 and no other Celtic is higher than 104. So Johnson’s importance to the team is unquestioned, although any of his best players may never make the highlight reels.
Johnson is not completely healthy. He said the plantar fasciitis comes and goes. Some days his left foot feels normal. On other days, it’ desperately requires a heating pad. But that’s customary for a 10-year veteran. Johnson knows a pain free body is a delusion at this point in his career.
“It’s random,” he said of his foot. “Last game, the Pacers game, I felt more lift but [Friday] it was a little bit more sore. I think I hit the ground a couple of times (in pain) today. But it’s getting better.”