The most endearing traits about Amir Johnson are his boundless energy, his effort, his drive; they are his trademark.
They have made him as big a Raptors fan favourite as just about anyone in franchise history. His motor is always in overdrive, he works through the pain and discomfort and he is beloved for it.
If those same characteristics allow Johnson to help the Raptors win just their second playoff series ever, he will cement his place in the pantheon of greats.
And they just might.
Johnson, because of that energy, effort and drive, has been an essential part of Toronto’s two victories over the Brooklyn Nets in the 2-2 best-of-seven playoff series that resumes at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night.
He’s had 33 points in total in Toronto’s two wins, just nine in the two Raptors losses; when he’s working and contributing and moving people around with his offensive activity, things are easier for all concerned.
He knows it, his teammates know it, his coaches know it, the Nets know it.
Now it’s a matter of him finding a way to do it consistently in what’s been reduced to a best-of-three series.
“(It’s) constantly moving, being energized, keeping Paul Pierce moving so it might slow him down a little bit,” Johnson said Tuesday after the Raptors practised at the Air Canada Centre. “Sometimes I’ll get the ball and take it to the basket just to keep him on his toes instead of just going back and playing defence and not letting him play defence on me.”
The Johnson-Pierce matchup has been one of the most intriguing in the series; the difference in size, skill and experience has been enthralling to watch.
Pierce is the crafty veteran playing power forward in an unconventional Brooklyn lineup; Johnson is the somewhat raw big man trying to guard someone smaller with skills that don’t allow for Pierce to be an easy cover.
Johnson, and his teammates, admit the Raptors big man has spent too much time worrying about what Pierce can do to exploit him rather than figuring out ways to exploit the slower, smaller Pierce.
“It’s just tough guarding Paul Pierce at the four. Just try to show him different looks on defence and on offence just being more aggressive,” said Johnson. “I just have to keep it consistent.
“I’m so worried about Paul Pierce and the position sometimes it kind of takes me out of other plays on offence or I sit back on offence and let other guys set screens.”
Getting Johnson in what are for him unconventional positions on offence was one of the key, subtle adjustments Raptors coach Dwane Casey made in Toronto’s season-saving Game 4 win in Brooklyn on Sunday night.
They were able at times to isolate Pierce on Johnson on the weak side of the floor, put others in pick and roll and let Johnson both move Pierce around and use his size advantage for a series of relatively easy field goals right at the basket.
“Empty the weak side and set screen-rolls where you can get the big on a pocket pass or the guards can have a layup to the basket,” said DeMar DeRozan. “Little things like that, just trying to move them around when they’re on the defensive end, figure out ways to get some layups.
“I think we understand how Brooklyn plays defence with their small lineup. It’s moving Paul Pierce around and moving the bigs around to where they can’t help as much as they usually would when we do conventional screen and roll.
“It’s just trying to get out of the box a little bit.”
The Nets are sure to make some adjustments of their own to keep Johnson under check in Game 5 because of the difference he’s made in two of the four games already. He had 16 points in Toronto’s Game 2 win and 17 — including 10 in the first quarter — in Game 4.
But no matter what they are, Johnson needs to use the one advantage he has that cannot be game-planned for. He has to be quicker and more energetic than Pierce, make the Brooklyn veteran react to him on every possession.
“Like going to the offensive boards every time, having him box me out, making him move every time to try and wear him down,” said Johnson.
Those are the things that Johnson has thrived on since he got to Toronto. They have to be part of his impact now that the team is at its most critical juncture since he became a Raptor.