BOSTON — His coming-out had been a long time coming and Kelly Olynyk was going to enjoy it. One hug was followed by another and another, and when Olynyk turned the corner toward the locker room with his long wet hair and wispy beard he looked — just for this moment — like the young Bill Walton.
Which, of course, made the Washington Wizards physically ill. They had been infuriated throughout this Eastern semifinal by Olynyk, the Boston Celtics’ 26-year-old backup center. But they had never imagined their antagonist scoring a career playoff-high 26 points — 14 in the fourth quarter — to seize a 115-105 victory Monday in Game 7.
“Kelly was MVP tonight,” said All-Star Isaiah Thomas (29 points and 12 assists), whose top-seeded Celtics will now be preparing for the opener of the Eastern Conference finals against defending NBA champion LeBron James and his second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. “He did it all. He made 3-pointers, he took it to the hole, he played really tough and he’s a big reason why we won tonight.”
The home team won all 11 games in this emerging yearlong rivalry between Boston and Washington, and yet Game 7 did not go to form. For almost three quarters the Wizards appeared to be establishing a winning formula despite the hoarse-throated intimidations of TD Garden. In the early going they benefited from several bail-out fouls by the Celtics. Overall they would command the boards 43-31 and win the transition game 17-6 — even as Boston was committing only eight turnovers. John Wall (18 points, 11 assists) was establishing the ruthless attacking pace that enabled Bradley Beal (38 points on 22 shots), Otto Porter Jr. (20 points and 10 rebounds) and Markieff Morris (18 and nine rebounds) to flourish.
The Wizards had carried a two-point lead into the half and were up 76-74 with 2:34 to go in the third quarter when Boston coach Brad Stevens replaced small forward Jae Crowder (14 points) with the 7-foot Olynyk. All of a sudden the Celtics were pursuing an 18-2 run that was launched by a pair of 3-pointers from Thomas and another 3 from Marcus Smart by way of Olynyk.
“We lost the game because of our defense,” said Wizards center Marcin Gortat (11 rebounds), who was unable to hide his frustration at the hands of Olynyk. “Kelly Olynyk came in … it can’t happen. It can’t happen. Their bench outplayed us — outplayed our starters and our second unit. You can’t win games if you’re going to let them do things like that.”
Olynyk, Smart (13 points) and rookie Jaylen Brown (nine) outscored Washington’s bench 48-5. “Kelly’s been contributing all year,” said Brown. “They’ve been kicking him early in the year, saying this and saying that. Now everybody loves him.”
The Celtics hit their stride in the fourth minute of the final quarter when starting center Al Horford (15 points and five assists) joined with Olynyk, Thomas, Smart and Bradley — a lineup of five playmakers. Olynyk found Smart for a layup, drilled a mid-range jumper from Thomas, hit a 3-pointer and finished a drive. In so doing he offset a frenzied run by Beal, whose 10 points in a span of 3:31 made no dent in Washington’s deficit.
Olynyk had galled the Wizards since the opening quarter of Game 1, when he came off the bench as the unlikely spark to Boston’s comeback from an 0-16 deficit. “Who is out there pushing us around? Kelly Olynyk!” a member of their traveling party had been heard to complain the following day. Washington’s Kelly Oubre had earned a one-game suspension for plowing into Olynyk after being victimized by a hard Olynyk screen in Game 3. Draymond Green, watching from the far end of the country, declared Olynyk to be a “dirty player.” It was all too much ado for a player who was averaging 7.8 points in 18.4 minutes over the first six games of the series.
But then, as noted by Brown, his own fans had also expressed frustrations with Olynyk. Ever since he arrived as the No. 13 pick from Gonzaga in the 2013 Draft, the Celtics’ gentle Canadian has teased the skills of a big man capable of all things. Too often, however, those flashes have been interrupted by doldrums of ineffectiveness and indecision. Part of the problem was the inability of the rebuilding Celtics to surround Olynyk with the explosive athleticism that would liberate his skills. Then there was also his failure to assert himself, while too often deferring passively to his teammates. This season, his fourth, he plateaued at 9.0 points and 4.8 rebounds in 20.5 minutes — numbers roughly equivalent to his career averages.
And so the crowd roared with astonished pleasure as Olynyk backed in aggressively for a post-up lay-in, which he followed with a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer to give his Celtics a 110-100 lead with 3:25 remaining. Thomas was hugging Olynyk at midcourt. “Kel-ly, Kel-ly, Kel-ly,” the fans were singing.
“I did hear that,” said Olynyk of his serenade, “in between the MVP chants for Isaiah.” Sitting beside him at the interview podium, Thomas smiled. Instead of dwelling on his 14 points in the fourth quarter — as many as he had scored in any of his preceding 20 playoff games — Olynyk preferred to focus on his All-Star teammate, in the same way as he had passed up so many open shots in earlier years.
“They were putting a lot of attention on him,” Olynyk said of the double and triple coverages that Thomas earned in this series. “He was putting us in great spots, and then we are playing 4 on 3. They weren’t going let him make plays at the end — they were going to make other people do it. So someone had to do it.”
With thanks to Avery Bradley, who was the breakout scorer in Games 5 and 6, and now also to Olynyk, the Celtics and Thomas have struck up the next phase of their evolving relationship. Instead of waiting for him to pull them along, as he had done so often with his fourth-quarter scoring this season, his teammates are now being elevated by their point guard’s playmaking. It couldn’t be happening at a better time, with the Cavaliers on their way to town.
“I knew it wasn’t going to be easy at all. The game wasn’t always what we wanted it to be, it wasn’t a perfect game, but we kept going and stayed the course and that was what this team has done all season long.”
Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas
“The 12-2 assist-to-turnover [ratio] is as powerful as the 29 points,” said Stevens of Thomas’s output in his Game 7 debut. “A lot of those shots that others made in the fourth quarter started with them putting two guys on Isaiah, and man, is he a tough guy. He’s dealing with more stuff physically, and obviously gone through what he went through at the start of the playoffs. It’s pretty remarkable.”
Thomas wouldn’t detail his current predicaments, other than to say, “I’m hurting.” But his story has been well told.
One month ago, on the eve of the playoffs, he learned of the death of his 22-year-old sister. While in mourning he helped drive the Celtics to a recovery from an 2-0 series deficit in the opening round against the Chicago Bulls. He has undergone major dental surgery after a painful collision with Porter’s elbow, and he has adapted to the trapping defenses of the Wizards. He is the embodiment of a young team that continues to press on ahead of the normal rebuilding schedule.
“All day/night I watched Paul Pierce vs. LeBron and how special that was — two superstars going at it, guarding each other and it was a historic game,” Thomas said of Boston’s Game 7 victory over Cleveland in the 2008 conference semifinals. “I definitely did my studying and I knew it was going to be a big-time game tonight, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy at all. The game wasn’t always what we wanted it to be, it wasn’t a perfect game, but we kept going and stayed the course and that was what this team has done all season long.”
This could make for quite a three-day period for the Celtics: Their first Game 7 victory and return to the conference finals since 2012, to be followed Tuesday by the Draft lottery where they are the favorite to win the No. 1 pick, and then an opportunity to knock off James in the home opener.
As Kevin Garnett once said, “Anything is possible.” And Kelly Olynyk is the long-awaited proof.
Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.
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