Stack the numbers up against last year's totals and there doesn't appear to be much difference.
The man is averaging 15.6 points a game. Last year he averaged 15.7. He's shooting .451 from the floor. Last year he shot .462. He's averaging 5.9 assists a game. Last year it was 6.8. Free throw shooting? He's down a little, at .818, after last year's career-best .853. He has a few more steals (108-96). According to the numbers, it's just your basic fine Dennis Johnson season, something that could have been accurately computed before the season even began.
But the numbers are hiding a few things, because it's quite possible this may be Dennis Johnson's best year.
K.C. Jones thinks so, anyway. "There comes a year when you just break out, when it's all there for you," says K.C. "That's happened this year for Dennis. He plays the defense, pushes the ball up, makes great passes, scores when he needs to and runs the team. And he's also become much more of a leader. That's the finishing touch."
DJ isn't into rating seasons, at least not at this stage. "I count it a complete season when you complete the play-offs," he explains. "The regular season is just one step along the road."
Playing guard on the Boston Celtics will not create many entries in your scrapbook. The focus of the offense and the inevitable publicity are on the frontcourt of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Bill Walton and Scott Wedman. These people are hard to ignore.
There can't be much doubt that playing with Bird, Parish and McHale cost DJ a spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. Could the coaches possibly have been serious in selecting Washington's Jeff Malone over Johnson as an All-Star? Malone is a superb shooter, but when it comes to all-around basketball expertise, he is not in DJ's class. Very few guards are.
Whatever labels were placed on Johnson previously, the most appropriate one for him now is "indispensable." He is adept in so many areas of backcourt play that the Celtics have no one who could adequately replace him if he weren't there. He is a unique commodity, and K.C.'s respect for him is verified in the surprising revelation that Johnson has led the Celtics in minutes played 30 times this season.
"Life without DJ?" inquires Jones. "We'd be in a world of trouble without DJ out there, especially at the defensive end."
Defensively, Johnson gives new meaning to the phrase "big guard." His well-known toughness makes him a big component in the Celtics' team defense, which, along with Milwaukee's, is the best in the league. "No guard can match him for bouncing off picks and recovering to get back at those great shooters," contends K.C. "There is just no tougher guard in the league."
In his younger days, when he was an unknown from Pepperdine on the make, he seemed to crave recognition. Now that he is a two-time world champion (with two teams), a play-off MVP (1979), a five-time All-Star game participant and a five-time member of the All-Defensive team, he is secure in his professional status. Dennis Johnson honestly doesn't seem to care one way or the other if a writer, broadcaster or TV man ever comes by his locker.
"I don't worry about publicity," he says. "I play the way this team helps me play. If people think I'm having a good year, it's because other people are also having good years. And as far as the guards on this team not getting as much recognition as the big men, well, I look at it this way: If we win the championship and in the final game Larry, Kevin and Robert have 27 points apiece and Danny (Ainge) and I have 10, we'll still get the same rings. That's what matters."