May 17, 1984
At one end of Boston Garden's creaky floor, Sidney Moncrief is dribbling a basketball. He prances on his toes like a Lippizaner show horse. His muscles are sleek, promising quickness and the power of someone twice his weight.
Waiting for Moncrief at halfcourt is Dennis Johnson. He is playing his first postseason for the Boston Celtics, who acquired him in a trade with the Phoenix Suns last summer. General Manager Red Auerbach wanted Johnson for precisely the sort of confrontation that is about to happen. Johnson is not as physically impressive as the Milwaukee Bucks' Moncrief. He is slower and not nearly as strong. His face is covered with Huck Finn freckles that make him look half his 29 years.
As he approaches Johnson, Moncrief turns his body 45 degrees and shields the ball with his left hip and shoulder. Johnson bumps Moncrief with his thigh, a quick gesture to let Moncrief know he cannot make an uninterrupted dash for the basket. While the other Bucks weave their way through a deliberate, double-pick play, Johnson decides to pester Moncrief with little flicks of his hand, a few more bumps.
Suddenly, Johnson's moves are more threatening. He talks to Moncrief. He makes what seems to be a reach for the ball. Instinctively, Moncrief spins. But Johnson is there sooner. He reaches for the ball just as it is leaving Moncrief's palm.
A clean steal.
Johnson is off and running and the Celtics fan out for the fast break.
Larry Bird's 24 points led all scorers in Boston's 119-96 victory Tuesday night. Bird is obviously the star of the team and a likely choice for most valuable player.
And yet Boston fans need not be reminded that the Bucks swept the Celtics in a four-game Eastern Conference semifinal last year even with Bird in the lineup. The addition of Johnson to the backcourt has turned out to make a tremendous difference for the Celtics. Steals like the one against Moncrief are crucial to Boston's running game and its hopes of advancing to the championship final.
Teams like Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles are so good they sometimes make moves that are especially directed toward the playoffs. The Celtics knew they would win about 50 games with a frontline of Bird, Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell and Kevin McHale no matter who was in the backcourt. But they knew, too, that come the playoffs they would have to cope with the great "big guards" of the NBA: Moncrief, Philadelphia's Andrew Toney, L.A.'s Magic Johnson.
"When I came to Boston, the team was already good," Johnson said. "But I knew they needed me for a specific job. Right now it's stopping Sidney. I can't do it by myself, we all have to get in it, but I have to concentrate a little extra."
Johnson held Moncrief to 13 points Tuesday and to a season average of 16.8. The Bucks won just once in six regular season games with the Celtics.
"He's obviously their major change," Moncrief said. "He may not have a great outside shot, but he can do just about everything else."
Johnson, who has made the all-defensive team five times, left Pepperdine as a junior in 1976. He helped win a championship with the Seattle SuperSonics in a return match with the Washington Bullets in 1979. During the 1979-1980 season, he and Coach Lenny Wilkens had personality conflicts, and over the summer Johnson was traded to Phoenix for Paul Westphal. Johnson's game helped the Suns to a 53-29 record last year, but they decided they needed help along the front line and traded him to Boston for Rick Robey.
The deal has turned out to be yet another of Auerbach's something-for-nothing transactions. Robey was injured much of the season, a cipher for the Suns. He averaged just 4.5 points and 3.3 rebounds a game before undergoing knee surgery. Truth be told, even a healthy Robey would have seen very little playing time this year in Boston.
Johnson started and thrived.
"I was never jealous or intimidated by the whole Celtics thing because I won a championship early," he said. "But having been there, I think I know what kind of things you have to do to win."
One of the things Johnson assumes he must do is continue firing up his outside shot. He is not an awkward outside shooter like teammate Quinn Buckner, but he is no sharpshooter, either. After a recent game in which he was lucky to have hit the rim, much less the shot, he was philosophical about his accuracy: "I'm a 35 to 40 percent shooter from the outside. That's me. The only way I could be a better shooter is to stay after practice and shoot the ball two hours a day. I'd rather be out on the street for those two hours a day, making deals for my future."
When told that doesn't exactly sound like the Bostonian Code of Work Ethics, Johnson said, "Well, I'm really just joking. But the thing is, after eight years, I'm not going to be able to change drastically. There are going to be times when I'm hot, and probably more times when I'm not. But I can't just pass up the shot. That's playing into the defense's hands. I know all about that defensive stuff."