Kelly Olynyk, Jordan Mickey and Al Horford spent an early moment in the Celtics’ loss to the Heat on Wednesday scrambling for loose balls. The scene looked like a Celtics practice from 2016-17. Once again, the C’s cued up a video tribute during a timeout.
The crowd erupted to a level that neared game seven against the Wizards seven months prior, as Boston commended Olynyk’s “hundreds of hours of community service.” He received the “Heroes Among Us” award, a unique way to pay tribute to a returning teammate, then Olynyk paid the Celtics’ defense a fatal blow with 32 points.
Five of Boston’s eight losses this season have come courtesy of opponents that feature players who dressed for the Celts a season ago. They now are 5-5 against Jae Crowder, Tyler Zeller, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Mickey and Olynyk. On Friday, Jerebko dropped 17 on Boston and Wednesday Olynyk hit 12-of-15, handing Boston their eighth loss.
“It feels like every team that comes in we have a video,” Brad Stevens said before the game. “I’d much prefer (to) see them in the summer or something.”
The usual jubilation shown to returning Celtics mellowed through the course of an overwhelming beatdown Olynyk dealt. Initially Horford got the upper hand, scoring through Olynyk on a pick-and-roll, before the latter got revenge blocking Horford on his drive from the right wing.
Their back-and-forth was expected after a full season together, then Semi Ojeleye was thrusted with the role of covering Olynyk. He quickly caught a fake underneath, fell for it, then watched Olynyk score through him. Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Horford remember Olynyk well, but most of Boston’s roster is new. The motivation of playing a former teammate wasn’t present across most of the team.
Jayson Tatum, Ojeleye, even Guerschon Yabusele in spot minutes are still assimilating to covering NBA big men, and did not have that familiarity with Olynyk.
The Olynyk effect prospered, he backed himself behind Horford in the post and caught a floating pass over him to score inside. He stepped out and dropped a low bounce pass in to Tyler Johnson on a cut for an assist. He hit six shots in the paint, six across the three point line.
He was in his element, unfazed by the array of bodies Boston threw at him, and exposed Boston’s continued defensive shortcomings. Routinely he’d break off a pick and switch himself onto Shane Larkin, who he towers 13 inches over.
But the issues went beyond inexperience, Olynyk’s motivation and mismatches. Horford had as difficult of a time as anyone. Brad Stevens noted the Heat controlled the pace of the game, and part of that was Olynyk setting the standard of his matchup with Horford. He’d get inside, but only finished 2-of-8 compared to Olynyk’s first half 3-of-4.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” Smart said. “There’s this competitive nature in every last one of us. You leave a team, you want to prove to that team, for whatever reason that you should still be there. I don’t know why we’re surprised about it. Kelly kicked our a**, Jonas kicked our a** … if this isn’t a wakeup call for us, I don’t know what is.”
Stevens was asked about lack of practice again and had two words to say, “no excuses.”
In the second half he watched as Olynyk nailed another three, stared down his bench and hopped to the other side of the court. The Celtics led by double digits, and Stevens could only watch as the player he coached from his first season on had his way against Boston’s defense.
Smart provided a moment of hope himself, smacking the ball away from Olynyk at the top of the arc as he snuck behind him. After a scramble the ball went out of bounds and Kyrie Irving finished on the ensuing in-bounds through Olynyk, tagging him with his fifth foul.
“It’s amazing we’re (counting fouls) for Olynyk,” a reporter noted.
But Olynyk didn’t falter, instead he threw down a monstrous dunk on a cutting pass from Dion Waiters that solidified his career night at 32 points. He hit the rim so hard, that he flopped off the ground after and nearly injured himself, having to stumble to the other end.
At that point, the most damage had been done to the Celtics. He backed Horford down with eight minutes left and not only hit him with his fifth foul, he got him heated. After an angry conversation with the referee, Horford got right on Olynyk’s back, off the in-bounds, and reached. He picked up his sixth foul immediately, and had to check out with roughly eight minutes left.
Frustration, points, missed up-fakes. Olynyk pitched it all on Boston.
“It’s hard to explain,” Horford said of the fouls. “Don’t know what else to say.”
Stevens critiqued Boston’s mistakes defensively and the aggressiveness offensively. The Celtics earned themselves a final possession to steal a win back, as they did against Indiana but Irving couldn’t finish his final shot.
“You keep biting on all those fakes like we did all night,” Stevens said. “You let him drive to his left hand … and then you give him too much of a cushion to get shots … he feels really good, he played a great game, I’m happy for him. It was definitely at our expense. Second time in a week one of our former players came in here and gave it to us.”
Olynyk, Jerebko had personal motivation to show out against the Celtics, the team that let them both go in free agency. Both now leave Boston searching for their own to break out of their recent inconsistency.