Dennis Johnson: 'Airplane' flew to three NBA titles
Dennis Johnson is best known as the defensive-oriented point guard for a couple Boston Celtics championship teams but in the early part of his career he was a real high flyer who earned the nickname “Airplane.” The 6-4 Johnson blocked seven shots in game three of the 1978 NBA Finals, just one block short of the Finals record that is currently shared by Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan. Unlike many guards who occasionally get some blocks, Johnson was not sneaking up on players and blocking their shots from behind. Johnson’s Seattle teammate Jack Sikma recalls, “He would be squared off on a jump shooter who would go up and shoot and he was so quick that he could get it as they released it.”
The California native first displayed his jumping ability at Los Angeles Harbor Junior College before playing one season at Pepperdine. Johnson led the Waves to a 21-5 regular season record in 1975-76 and a first place finish in the West Coast Athletic Conference, earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Pepperdine defeated Memphis 87-77 and then lost 70-61 to a UCLA team that made it all the way to the Final Four.
The Seattle SuperSonics selected Johnson in the second round of the 1976 NBA Draft. All-Star Fred Brown and All-Defensive First Team selection Slick Watts were already established as a good backcourt duo for Seattle, but Johnson carved out a role as the third guard, averaging a little more than 20 mpg. Johnson put up some eye-popping numbers during limited action, grabbing 161 offensive rebounds, getting 123 steals and blocking 57 shots in just 1,667 minutes; on a per-minute basis, he performed like a power forward or center as an offensive rebounder/shot blocker while also stealing the ball at a faster rate than many of the league’s quickest guards.
Seattle did not qualify for the playoffs in 1977 and Bob Hopkins replaced Bill Russell as the head coach. Hopkins lasted just 22 games in the 1977-78 season before Lenny Wilkens took the helm. Wilkens traded Watts, made Johnson a starter, gave more playing time to rookie Jack Sikma and the Sonics emerged as one of the best teams in the league, going 42-18 under Wilkens to finish with a 47-35 record, tying the franchise’s mark for regular season wins, originally set in 1971-72 during Wilkens’ first run as Sonics’ coach. Johnson averaged 12.7 ppg and had 152 offensive rebounds, 118 steals and 51 blocked shots in 27.3 mpg. He also ranked third on the team with 230 assists. Johnson’s numbers went up across the board in the playoffs as he averaged 16.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 3.3 apg while playing 37.6 mpg.
Hall of Famer David Thompson played against Johnson for several years and they battled against each other in the 1978 playoffs. “Dennis Johnson and Michael Cooper were the two toughest defenders I ever went up against,” Thompson says. “DJ was strong and real physical. He had long arms and he was very good at anticipating your move. He was a real tough defender.”
The Sonics had an excellent backcourt trio with Johnson, Brown and Gus Williams, a third year player who they acquired from Golden State. They also had a good frontcourt rotation with Marvin Webster, Sikma, John Johnson and wily veteran Paul Silas. Seattle won playoff series against the defending champion Portland Trailblazers and Thompson’s Denver Nuggets, earning the right to play the Washington Bullets in the NBA Finals. The Bullets previously made it to the Finals in 1971 and 1975 only to get swept on both occasions. They only went 44-38 during the regular season but, like the Sonics, they peaked at the right time.
The teams traded victories, each winning once on the other team’s court, setting up a seventh game in Seattle. Johnson played well during most of the series, averaging 16.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg and 2.9 apg, but he had a disastrous performance in game seven, shooting 0-14 from the field and scoring just four points in a 105-99 loss.
Johnson responded to that setback by making the All-Star Team for the first time, averaging 15.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 3.5 mpg while playing 34.0 mpg in 1978-79. He also was selected to the All-Defensive First Team after getting 100 steals and a career-high 97 blocked shots, ranking first among guards in that category. Johnson and the Sonics had unfinished business to take care of in the playoffs and they made it back to the Finals for a rematch with the Bullets. Johnson averaged 20.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg and 4.1 apg in the postseason and he improved those numbers to 22.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 6.0 apg versus Washington, winning the Finals MVP as the Sonics beat the Bullets in five games.
“He always guarded the toughest matchup at the guard position,” Sikma says. “He had a very tough seventh game the first year that we were in the championship but he came back from it and was very confident. He continued to get better as his career went on. He handled the ball well. There were not any weaknesses in his game.”
Johnson had an even better season in 1979-80, averaging 19.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 4.7 apg. He made the All-Star team, the All-Defensive First Team and the All-NBA Second Team. The Sonics won 56 games but fell to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar/Magic Johnson Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. Some friction had developed between Johnson and Wilkens, so after the season the Sonics traded Johnson to Phoenix for Paul Westphal. Johnson continued to play at a high level in Phoenix, making the All-Star team twice and the All-Defensive Team three times, but in 1983 the Suns traded him to Boston for Rick Robey.
Boston already had a Hall of Fame frontcourt with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish but the Celtics had nobody who could defend 76ers guard Andrew Toney, whose exploits against them had earned him the nickname “The Boston Strangler.” Dennis Johnson was a perfect fit for the Celtics. His scoring declined but his defense was just what the team needed. Johnson also repeatedly showed the ability to perform at his best in the biggest games and even though he did not shoot a great percentage from the field he had an uncanny knack for making clutch shots. Due to the heightened level of competition, the specialized game plans that teams prepare and the slower pace of playoff games, it is unusual for a player to be more productive in the postseason than he was in the regular season but Johnson accomplished this on several occasions. In 1983-84, he averaged 13.2 ppg in the regular season, 16.6 ppg in the playoffs and 17.6 ppg—second on the team to Bird—in the Finals as the Celtics beat the Lakers in seven games. Johnson also led the Celtics in assists (4.7 apg) in the Finals.
Johnson’s playmaking carried over into the next season and he led the Celtics in assists (6.8 apg), earning his fifth All-Star team selection. As usual, he also made the All-Defensive Team. The Celtics won a league-best 63 games and cruised back to the Finals for another showdown with the Lakers. This time, L.A. emerged victorious, though Johnson once again displayed his ability to produce in the clutch by nailing a game-winning jumper as time ran out in game four.
The Celtics reached their Bird-era peak in 1985-86, going 67-15, including an astounding, record-setting 40-1 at home. Boston rolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs with an 11-1 record. Houston upset L.A. in the Western Conference playoffs and offered decent resistance in the Finals before the Celtics captured a 4-2 victory. Johnson again elevated his play in the postseason; after averaging 15.6 ppg in the regular season he increased that to 16.2 ppg in the playoffs and 17.0 ppg in the Finals.
Johnson played a key role in one of the most famous plays in NBA history. The Detroit Pistons led 107-106 in game five of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals and were on the verge of a huge win in the Boston Garden that would give them a 3-2 series lead. All they needed to do was safely inbound the ball but Bird stole Isiah Thomas’ pass and as he was falling out of bounds he delivered the ball to a cutting Johnson, who scored the game-winning layup. Without Johnson’s awareness, Bird’s steal might have gone for naught. Boston went on to win that series to earn their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance but the concluding installment of the Bird-Magic rivalry went to Magic, four games to two. Dennis Johnson earned his ninth and final All-Defense Team selection that season and he again stepped up his game in the playoffs, averaging 18.9 ppg and 8.9 apg after producing 13.4 ppg and 7.5 apg during the regular season; those numbers increased to 21.0 ppg (second on the team to Bird) and 9.3 apg (first on the team) in the Finals.
The Pistons beat the Celtics in the 1988 Eastern Conference Finals. This series marked a real changing of the guard in the Eastern Conference; the Pistons began a run of three straight NBA Finals appearances, while the once dominant Celtics did not return to the Eastern Conference Finals until 2002. Johnson’s scoring average declined in his last few seasons but his assists went up and in 1988 he cracked the top ten in the league in that category for the first and only time in his career (7.8 apg, 10th in the NBA).
Johnson retired after the 1989-90 season with career regular season averages of 14.1 ppg, 5.0 apg and 3.9 rpg. At that time he was just the 11th NBA player to have more than 15,000 career points (15,535) and more than 5000 career assists (5499). He averaged 17.3 ppg, 5.6 apg and 4.3 rpg in 180 playoff games and 18.3 ppg, 6.2 apg and 4.7 rpg in 37 NBA Finals games spread out over six series. Johnson ranks fifth in NBA Finals history in career assists (228), seventh in Finals history in career steals (48) and ninth in Finals history in career blocked shots (39).
Johnson died of a heart attack on February 22, 2007. He was only 52 years old and he had just finished coaching a practice for the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League. Johnson is one of 15 Finalists for induction in the Basketball Hall of Fame this year.
David Friedman's work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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