WALTHAM — After the Celtics finished practice on Monday, several players left the facility to go home and rest, and others lingered and played lighthearted shooting games, smiling and laughing and keeping the mood light.
Meanwhile, on a side basket, center Amir Johnson calmly and quietly fired up one jump shot after another, with assistant coach Jay Larranaga leading a small group of staffers rebounding for him.
“If things aren’t working out for you, you know you’ve got to do the next thing,” Johnson said. “If the offense puts you in a position to shoot threes, man, you’d better go ahead and work on your threes, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”
The top-seeded Celtics have steadied themselves after stunningly losing consecutive home games to the eighth-seeded Bulls to open the first round. With a Game 1 victory over the Wizards in the conference semifinals Sunday, Boston has won five games in a row since its sleepy beginning.
But the team’s revival has coincided with a demotion — albeit potentially temporary — for Johnson, and that is one reason he was lofting jump shots after Monday’s practice.
During the regular season Johnson led the Celtics in games (80) and starts (77). He was an important part of a starting lineup that, when healthy, was among the more effective and efficient in the league. Johnson’s net rating of plus-8.0 led the Celtics during the regular season.
But early in these playoffs, Celtics coach Brad Stevens faced a conundrum. Boston was getting pummeled on the backboards by the Bulls. It might seem risky to respond to this situation by removing one of your tallest players and leading rebounders, but Stevens knew that the Celtics’ best chance to survive against Chicago was by spreading the floor out with more shooters.
So Johnson was replaced in the starting lineup by veteran wing Gerald Green, and he mostly vanished from the rotation altogether.
In 41 minutes with Johnson on the court during the playoffs, the Celtics have a net rating of minus-6.6. It is the second-worst figure among those who have played at least 30 minutes, trailing only rookie forward Jaylen Brown. With Johnson on the bench, the Celtics have a net rating of plus-9.6.
But Johnson has not been discouraged by his long stints on the bench.
“I think that’s where some players get messed up, if they’re not playing or starting and they kind of get down on themselves for doing the wrong things,” he said. “You’ve just got to stay consistent and do the same things that got you in this league and that got you this far. That’s one of the big reasons I feel like I’ve lasted this long, always doing the extra things, always preparing myself.”
Stevens has commended Johnson for his professionalism and preparedness several times recently. He maintains that there likely wil be a time when this team needs Johnson again during these playoffs, and Johnson remains confident that he will be ready when that moment comes. After sitting out the final three games of the Bulls series, Johnson played eight minutes against the Wizards on Sunday.
During games, Johnson can usually be seen hopping off the bench to offer instruction or even just to wave a towel and encourage a teammate.
“He’s been really good coaching us young guys and making sure [we know] what he sees out there and just communicating it to us on the court and really just picking everybody up,” guard Marcus Smart said. “Amir’s been playing for a long time. He understands it and he knows it.”
Johnson recalled a playoff series early in his career when his Pistons were scuffling against the Cavaliers and he was part of a young lineup that started a second half in place of the regulars. The group sliced up almost all of a massive deficit before the starters came back in, and when the starters returned, veteran Antonio McDyess wondered why they were replacing a unit that was thriving.
Johnson said that he takes a similar approach now. He wants to play, but he also understands that the Celtics are cruising without him, and he does not want to disrupt this rhythm.
“If you have negativity you’re just bringing yourself down and doing the wrong things, going out, whatever it may be,” Johnson said. “My thing is always just stay positive and just wait for your opportunity. You’ve got to let a coach do what he wants to. If you put too much pressure or put too much nonsense on the coach, it could just mess up the flow.”