Gregory Shamus/NBAE

Johnson & Thomas: A Lethal Combo in the Making

WALTHAM, Mass. – Considering the amount of new additions to the Boston Celtics’ roster this season, the team has wisely utilized much of its training camp to evaluate potential combinations of players to put on the floor.

Some pairings take time to gel, while others seem meant to be from the get-go.

The combo of Isaiah Thomas and midsummer acquisition Amir Johnson fall into the latter category. As coach Brad Stevens indicated prior to Sunday’s practice, “that’s been a good combination since day one [of training camp].”

The two had never teamed up together prior to this preseason, but Thomas insisted, “Ever since [Johnson] has gotten here, it’s kind of been like clockwork. We don’t really talk about it. We just play off instinct and play off what the defense gives us.”

Their teamwork on the pick-and-roll has been seamless so far, and Johnson explained why on Sunday.

“I’m a big that likes to set screens and roll,” said Johnson. “He just makes it easier for me because he’s such a great ball handler and he gets the defender off him before I even set the screen, so it just works.”

Johnson holds a firm, wide stance while setting a screen, which creates space for shooters like Thomas. And we all know what IT is capable of when he gets an open look at the hoop.

Thomas said they benefit mutually when they are on the floor together. He also lauded how Johnson makes the game simpler for him.

“He’s a player that just knows how to play,” said Thomas. “Sometimes he doesn’t even know what play we’re running, but his basketball IQ is so high that he knows what to do out there. He’s a talented basketball player offensively and defensively and he’s gonna definitely help us this season.”

Stevens agreed that Johnson’s presence will be a boost, and went on to provide a lengthy list of the positive attributes he has to offer.

“He can stretch the floor and shoot, he can score on the interior, he can roll, he can run,” said Stevens. “Sometimes his rim runs open up shots for other people. You saw that in the New York game [on Friday]: He ran really hard to the rim, sucked in Avery [Bradley’s] defender and Avery made a corner 3. Those are some of the reasons that Amir’s advanced stats are a lot higher than maybe his traditional stats would suggest.”

The 10-year veteran has posted career averages of 7.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. But his other contributions on the floor – the kind of plays that don’t show up on a box score, such as setting a pick or posting up – are what make him so valuable.

Last week in New York however, Johnson proved he can rack up the traditional stats as well, if that’s what his team needs him to do.

Johnson has been mostly known for his gritty defense throughout his career, which is why he may have surprised a few folks when he displayed scoring prowess during the C’s road trip.

Johnson was a monster in Brooklyn on Wednesday night as he put up 17 points during the first half. Two nights later, he tallied eight points during the first quarter against the Knicks. He played 40 minutes during the two-game stretch and racked up 27 points, nine rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

He even showed off some range by making two early 3-pointers against Brooklyn. The Nets did not even contest the long-range shots, as Johnson explained that teams are just beginning to realize the he can knock down treys.

“As the years go by I’ve been shooting the 3 a little bit more and more, so some teams are starting to recognize that I can pull the trigger,” said Johnson, who added confidently, “If I have a wide open shot, I’m shooting it.”

He was just 9-of-29 from beyond the arc during his first eight seasons, but Johnson has been jacking them up at a higher rate over the last two campaigns. He's shot 39-of-112 from deep during that span.

He noted that it’s important to continue to develop his 3-point shot, “Especially when we have quick bigs at the 4 and 5. The slower bigs will have to step out on the 3-point line and knock down that 3-point shot.”

Time will tell if he can continue to put up numbers like he has displayed during the last couple of games. It’s a small sample size, but he looks like he could flourish more offensively in this system than he did with Toronto over the last six seasons.

What is certain is that he is quickly gaining chemistry with his teammates, particularly with Thomas. Putting those two on the court together has resulted in success so far and they have the potential to be a lethal pick-and-roll combination this season.


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