Kevin Durant wasn’t the only player having a night to remember in Oklahoma City’s 119-118 double-overtime victory against the Toronto Raptors.
Although he would rather the final outcome had been a different, Amir Johnson suited up for the 500th game of his NBA career on Friday night.
“I just say it’s a blessing that I can continue to keep on playing through all the injuries I’ve been through,” Johnson said about the milestone. “Just to be able to wake up every morning to love what you do and continue on playing.”
At 26 years old, Johnson is in his ninth season after being selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 56th overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. Johnson was the last player to be drafted straight out of high school before the age limit came into effect and spent his first couple of seasons splitting time between the Pistons bench and the NBA D-League honing his skills.
His extra work paid off. From the moment he was sent to the Raptors in the summer of 2009, his work ethic and toughness resonated with a city that reserves its greatest appreciation for players who leave it all on the floor.
Johnson — like the rest of Toronto’s locker room — was sullen after the loss to the Thunder.
“A loss,” he said of how he would remember his 500th game. “I guess I’ll remember it was a game we had in our hand and we just lost it at the end. I’ll definitely remember that.”
Despite the sting of the defeat, Johnson delivered a performance to be proud of on Friday night on both ends of the floor.
After Durant’s dagger three-pointer, his 51st point in 52 minutes of action, Johnson walked off the court playing a team-high 49:52 minutes with a line of 25 points (on 12-for-19 field goals), 12 rebounds, four assists, two steals and five blocked shots.
When he was on the defensive end, Johnson guarded Durant and made him work for his buckets. Johnson told Raptors head coach Dwane Casey that he wanted to take on the task of trying to slow Durant during the third quarter. That fearlessness and competitiveness has earned him respect among his teammates.
“It means a lot and I have the utmost respect for him,” DeMar DeRozan said. “It takes a lot of guts to go out there and play great defence.”
Whether being asked to race around the perimeter and try to contain the league’s best scorer (and likely MVP), give up his body for a hustle play or clean up his teammates misses on the glass, Johnson does it. What’s more, he does it before it ever needs to be asked of him.
“Consistent I would say is a word to put with Amir,” Casey said. “You know what you’re going to get every night, he’s going to give you an honest day’s work each night out on the floor.”
Whether he’s playing at full strength or on a busted ankle — the latter has been more common than then former over the past two seasons — Johnson is willing to do whatever it takes to help his team move forward.
Johnson has carved out an important role on this team. He has also become one of the most beloved players of the team and is considered an honorary Torontonian thanks to his unabashed love for the city that embraced him from day one.
“Wow,” Johnson said. “It’s a blessing, man… That’s a lot of games.”
For Toronto, the pleasure has been having Johnson in a Raptors uniform for 365 of those 500 games.