January 25, 1984
At a recent practice at Hellenic College, Celtics' legend Red Auerbach tipped his cigar ashes into a paper cup, blew smoke and said, "You know what I think the big difference is? It's No. 3. He's the big difference between this year and last."
Dennis Johnson wears No. 3.
In this emotional joy ride through the first half of the 1983-84 regular season, intangible elements of happiness, harmony and chemistry have been cited as the primary causes of Boston's early success. But while everybody is admitting a preference for the K.C. Jones soft shoe over the Bill Fitch goose step, the addition of Dennis Johnson is often overlooked. As the Celtics prepare for to night's fourth regular-season scrum with the hated Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Garden (7:30), DJ represents the crucial new wrinkle in this five-year long war.
The addition of Johnson was the only major personnel changemade by the Celtics or Sixers in the offseason. Philadelphia is starting the same five players it did in the championship season of 1982-83. On the pine, Sam Williams, Sedale Threatt and Leo Rautins (currently on the injured list) sit where Reggie Johnson, Mark McNamara and Earl Cureton sat last year. In Boston, Rick Robey and Charles Bradley have been replaced by Greg Kite and Carlos Clark, but instead of Tiny Archibald the Celtics have Dennis Johnson starting at guard.
"He gives us something we didn't have," says Auerbach. "He does all the things we hoped Charles Bradley would eventually do. But instead of working on his shot, Charles was admiring his body." Backcourt matchups have been Boston's biggest problem against the Sixers. In DJ, the Celts picked up a four-time All-Star and a five-time member of the NBA's All-Defensive team. When the Celtics play the Sixers, Johnson is asked to contain Boston strangler Andrew Toney while providing new problems for the Sixers on defense.
Toney has scored 19, 18 and 28 points while hitting 50 percent (25 for 50) in three games against the Celts this season. DJ wasn't on the floor at the end of regulation when Toney's three-pointer forced an overtime in the Garden Dec. 4. However, two weeks ago in the Spectrum, when the 76ers trailed by one with 18 seconds left, Philly set up a shot for Julius Erving rather than Toney, who was being guarded by DJ.
"DJ hasn't shut Andrew down, but I don't think anyone is capable of stopping him altogether," says Celtics assistant coach Chris Ford. "Before, there was always an aura of us being leery. We wondered if anybody could contain Andrew. Now, we think we have that. Our players have confidence in DJ, plus he's able to take Toney down low and post him up and maybe get him in foul trouble."
Johnson made his name in the NBA by playing defense, but the Celts see his offensive potential as a critical new weapon against the Sixers. "DJ can really hurt them on the offensive end," notes M.L. Carr. "He gives us another guy that can put pressure on them." Johnson scored 11, 11 and 17 points in the first three Boston-Philadelphia matches, and hasn't been bashful about taking the open jumper or driving to the basket. Both teams figure to be tired tonight. The Celtics traveled from Cleveland to Boston this morning, while the Sixers arrived from last night's game in New York. "Any time these two teams play it's a knock-down, drag-out battle," says Carr. "Down there, Doc (Erving) said they wanted to establish some dominance over them. Now, it's our chance. We want a dominant win."