Johnson Returns to Boston as Beloved Enemy of C's

Marc D'Amico
Team Reporter and Analyst

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WALTHAM, Mass. - A year ago, Amir Johnson was starting at center for the Boston Celtics as they made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Now, a year later and as as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, he’s Boston’s enemy in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

An important additional note: he’s a beloved enemy.

The Celtics gushed about their former teammate ahead of Tuesday afternoon’s practice in Waltham, Massachusetts. Johnson may be on the other team, but he is still revered inside of Boston’s locker room by the players and coaches who were around him during the last two seasons.

“I can’t say enough good things about Amir because of his mindset, his attitude,” said Brad Stevens. “If we got beat by 20, he walked on the plane giving everybody hugs and high-fives. And if we won by 20, he was giving everyone hugs and high-fives.”

Said Terry Rozier, a teammate of Johnson’s for two years, “Amir is one of the greatest on/off the court guys that you can meet. He’s got the same attitude every single day.”

While the Celtics are hold nothing but positive thoughts for Johnson, the same can be said in the opposite direction. Johnson built some of his fondest memories during his two years of living in Boston and playing for the Celtics.

“Always a connection to Boston,” he told Celtics.com Monday. “My son was born here at St. Elizabeth’s (Medical Center), so there’s always going to be a great connection with the city. I still keep up with the guys, the (medical and training) staff they let go. I talk to those guys a lot, and I keep around with some of the players who are still here.”

Rozier joked that he and Johnson still go back-and-forth with humorous barbs, even during Monday’s Game 1, as has been the case since they each joined the team during the 2015 offseason. But while Johnson still keeps in touch and has close relationships with his former teammates and coaches in Boston, the majority of his energy is dedicated to the growth of his team in Philadelphia.

Johnson’s positive aura was surely a monumental factor in the rapid ascension of the 76ers this season. Philadelphia is one of the younger teams in the league and is led by its two cornerstones, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, who are 24 and 21 years old, respectively. Much like during his time with the Celtics in Boston, Johnson’s presence helped the young Sixers to stay humbled during the good times and motivated during the bad times.

“He’s just a real positive guy,“ said Stevens, “and as you go through this kind of rollercoaster of emotions throughout a season, it’s so important to have guys like that.”

Johnson, coincidentally, used the term “rollercoaster” to describe Philadelphia’s season. Celtics.com asked Johnson about his team’s rapid progress since training camp, and he added some honest yet witty feedback.

“It’s not just been a progress – it’s been a process. You can quote that on me, for sure,” he said with a sly smile, playing on to Philly’s ‘Trust the Process’ mantra. “It’s been an up-and-down season. It’s been like a rollercoaster. Guys are starting to figure out what works for them.”

Johnson has been a big part of that process. He was undoubtedly a great teammate throughout the season, and when Embiid went down with an injury in late-March, Johnson was there to step in.

He started Philadelphia’s final eight games of the regular season, all of which were won by the 76ers. During that time span, he averaged nearly 22 minutes of action per game, and Philadelphia outscored its opponent by an average of 9.5 points per game while he was on the court. Johnson owned the third-best defensive rating on the team during that span, with an elite mark of 92.7.

Game 1 of this Conference Semifinals series did not turn out to be a platform on which Johnson could showcase his on-the-court impact, as he played only five minutes. However, the Celtics know full well that his uplifting spirits have been operating at full force since Monday night, keeping the Sixers even-keeled following Boston’s 117-101 victory Monday night.

Johnson is on the other side of the ball nowadays, and Boston wants to end his season. Still, there is no hiding the fact that the Celtics still love him, and he still loves the Celtics.