Not Isaiah Thomas. Not Al Horford. Not Avery Bradley. It was Kelly Olynyk who punched the Celtics‘ ticket to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Game 7 between the Celtics and Washington Wizards was everything we expected. We all know the winner is going to have their hearts ripped out by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but, for nearly two-and-a-half hours, it had an NBA Finals atmosphere. Neither team had won a game on the road this series. Going off that, Boston was the easy favorite. Washington’s counterpoint was the momentum they built up off of John Wall’s game-winner just one game prior.
It was a slugfest through three quarters. Whenever the Celtics would go on a run, the Wizards would answer right back. That was, essentially, how the flow of the game was. Despite the back-and-forth nature, Washington didn’t look like they were ready. Nor did they play the team who deserved to win. Their offense was sloppy at times, and they had multiple lapses on defenses that resulted in easy baskets. The Celtics held an 85-79 lead going into the fourth, and the Wizards’ relentless attacking of the glass (34-24) combined with Bradley Beal’s hot right hand kept the scoreboard tight.
Before tip-off, Charles Barkley said that winner would get a contribution from their role players. He elaborated, saying that Thomas, Horford, Wall and Beal are going to cancel each other out. That meant the Wizards would have Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter and/or Markieff Morris step up if they wanted to advance; Boston would need Jae Crowder, Olynyk and/or Marcus Smart. By night’s end, it was evident who rose to the occasion.
On the first possession of the fourth, Olynyk, who was hounded by Jason Smith, whipped a pass from the corner to a cutting Jaylen Brown. The rookie elevated and powered home a one-handed jam on Bojan Bogdanovic. The Garden erupted.
Being a seven-foot stretch four, Olynyk can be a matchup nightmare from time-to-time. His shot is his best asset by far, and forcing him to put the ball on the floor is a defender’s best bet.
All night long, the bigs for Washington got caught up on screens. Of the mental errors that were prevalent, missed assignments were at the top, and you cannot expect to win an elimination game by forgetting where your man is. It was only right for Olynyk and the Celtics to capitalize on it. His first bucket was a product of porous defense. After a handoff to Thomas, Horford (who Gortat was supposed to be guarding) cut middle and freed up Olynyk. It’s not clear if he was setting a screen or just battling for position, but the man bun was able to step out for an open 19-footer.
Boston’s lead was back to eight, and the Wizards were visibly disgusted by their defense. As was I. It became apparent that Gortat had no business matching up with anyone in the pick-and-roll, so the Celtics decided to exploit that since Olynyk was his man. Not even a minute passed before Thomas drew a double team and shoveled a behind-the-back pass to an open Olynyk. Gortat was a step too slow. The Wizards regained composure and made a bit of a run, cutting Boston’s lead down to four with about six minutes left. Despite all the momentum the Celtics had, it was a game that they could’ve lost. Olynyk did not want that to happen. Morris drew the assignment this time down, and it’s a far better matchup for Washington. A hard closeout (that no one got injured on) forced Olynyk into the paint. If it were any other game, that’d be a great move. However, Olynyk had caught fire NBA Jam style, and nothing could go wrong. With two steps he initiated a clumsy gather and finished around Gortat.
If you’re keeping track at home, here’s where we stand:
- Gortat - cooked
- Morris - cooked, but barely
- Ian Mahinmi - cooked in the first half
Porter was the next man up. He’s giving up some size but isn’t a bad defender, and Olynyk isn’t one to play with his back to the basket. Well, on Monday night, Kelly McHale flipped the script and played bully ball with Porter before dropping in a scoop layup. The final basket by Olynyk was yet another open three. Beal had to leave his man — who was in the corner — and attempt to contest the shot because no one was around. And it looked like no one wanted to be. The Wizards looked beat as soon as Thomas split the Wall-Morris double team.
The 14 points Olynyk had in the fourth gave him 26, which was the game’s third-highest total behind Thomas’ 29 and Beal’s 38. There’s no question that he looked like the second-best player on the floor — in the second-half, at least. As Barkley predicted, Thomas and Horford did what they needed, and Olynyk put them over the edge. Smart did as well, but his impact wasn’t felt in the box score as much.
Washington’s only standout was Beal, who put on a scintillating effort. Not only was he the game’s leading scorer, but he also did so by going 12-of-22 in his 45 minutes. He also showed up in the fourth — something we can’t say about John Wall. Beal battled Olynyk for nearly the entire quarter and finished with 12 points, while his backcourt mate missed all 11 of his attempts over the last 19 minutes. He did, however, have six assists in the final period, so it wasn’t all bad. Wall is still a star and the top point guard in the East, but he’ll be chasing the “superstar” label for at least another season.
Maybe I wouldn’t feel this way if Game 6 never happened. Additionally, I don’t think I’d feel this way if he didn’t close out the Atlanta Hawks like he did. Wall’s final game saw him drop 18 points on 8-of-23 shooting with 11 assists.
With the addition of Olynyk and Thomas, the Celtics now have nine players since 1964 who have scored at least 25 in a Game 7 victory. Six of them are Hall of Famers. The seventh is Paul Pierce, a future Hall of Famer. Olynyk’s shrine in Springfield isn’t likely, but his man bun will forever be in the history books alongside some all-time greats. And that’s pretty amazing.
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