Detroit — It’s a bit of a change of scenery for Stanley Johnson. As he looks around, he no longer has a mishmash of reserves in the lineup on the court.
It’s the same when he looks at the player he’s guarding: no longer is it the best bench scorer — now, it’s an elite-level scorer such as the Thunder’s Paul George, the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis or the Warriors’ Kevin Durant.
The move to the starting lineup has that impact; it’s rapid fire all the time, on both ends of the court, playing against the best the NBA has to offer.
Since Marcus Morris went to the Celtics for Avery Bradley, the starter’s minutes have opened for Johnson and after a tough start in the first couple games, he’s answered the bell with stingy defense — and some offense as an added bonus.
“I don’t have to worry about taking on a lot of the scoring load; I just shoot shots when I’m open. Some nights I shoot 11 times and some less,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Playing with the second-unit guys, it’s a little different. It’s a change of pace and the level of players is a little different, not having Paul George out there with the second-unit guys.”
Johnson has dug in on the defensive end, getting the best forward as his assignment, while still trying to find more smooth air on offense. He had scored in double figures in three straight games until the Celtics game Monday, when he had seven points.
His numbers are a little below his encouraging rookie season, when he averaged 8.1 points and 4.2 rebounds, but in a starting role, he has more defensive responsibility and doesn’t have to play in more of a scoring role off the bench. It’s taken some time to get comfortable in the starting lineup, but he’s starting to show signs that it’s starting to click.
“(Defense) is the main focus,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “We do need him to shoot the ball better, but he has focused on the defense and that’s been good.”
With the starting group, he’s playing a career-high 30 minutes and is pairing with Avery Bradley to form a top-tier wing defensive combo. They were up to the task against the Thunder, with George and Russell Westbrook on the other side, and it’s becoming a point of pride.
As the offense improves, Johnson gets to feast on open shots created by the residual action of Reggie Jackson, Bradley, Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris. When the ball swings, he finds himself with an open shot and is hitting career highs of 30.8 percent on 3-pointers and 46.7 percent inside the arc.
It’s just a case of being patient and then making the shots when they present themselves.
“Playing with the first unit, you have better scorers and options,” Johnson said. “You have Andre — that’s the biggest difference between any team and our team — and he creates so much attention.”
Jackson has a good chemistry with Drummond on their lobs off pick-and-roll action, but Bradley showed an affinity for them in the Celtics game on Monday. He threw a couple to Drummond, who was able to finish around the rim for easy baskets.
It’s something new for Bradley, but with Drummond, it’s easier than it has been.
“It’s pretty easy to say (Bradley) hasn’t played with anyone like Andre. That guy comes around once every 10 years: (Shaquille O’Neal) came in 1992, Dwight (Howard) in ’02, Dre in 2012,” Jackson said. “It seems like every 10 years, you get a freak like that who can be light on their feet and go up to 15 feet, it seems.
“The more he runs dribble-handoffs, the more he’s getting comfortable and they’re getting their own chemistry.”