Back in early March, after a particularly bad 14-point loss on the road to the Los Angeles Clippers, Isaiah Thomas broke ranks and publicly criticized his coach, Brad Stevens, about his rotation. The Celtics played 11 players that night. "We can’t be experimenting in Game 63. … You can watch film. You know what it is."
Thomas, in the process of establishing himself as Boston’s franchise player, was losing patience with Stevens’s tinkering. To be fair, Stevens did play Jordan Mickey that night. But after Boston’s Game 7 Eastern Conference semifinal triumph over Washington, maybe there was a method to Stevens’s madness. You tinker, you adjust, you give chances, you spread the minutes around. Because you never know whom you’re going to need, and you never know when you’re going to need them.
This is the only possible explanation I can come up with for what Kelly Olynyk did on Monday night.
Olynyk won this game. Thomas was good. Al Horford was good. Marcus Smart was good. Kelly Olynyk turned into Man Bun Mailman. He was a stretch 4, in the sense that he stretched what I thought reality was. The 26-year-old Canadian scored 26 points, on 10-of-14 shooting, with 14 of those coming in the fourth quarter. It was the best performance by a bench player in a Game 7 since Phoenix’s Leandro Barbosa scored 26 against the Lakers in 2006. Olynyk had played 299 NBA games in his life and scored more than 26 only three times.
And it’s not like he was some mine of offensive prowess just waiting to be tapped. Kelly Olynyk is supposed to be useful, not heroic. He’s supposed to set screens, piss off other people named Kelly, grab boards, and stretch the floor. He played about 20 minutes per game this season, he averaged about eight points per game. This was his life.
Now this is his life:
That was the dagger, I think. But maybe the dagger was just Kelly Olynyk himself. He was telepathically working with Isaiah Thomas (IT had five dimes to Olynyk, three in the fourth alone). Olynyk was a bundle of post moves, hallucinatory dream shakes, and barreling drives.
He seemed to suck away the Wizards’ will to live. As Kelly grew stronger, John Wall grew weaker, going 0-for-11 in the last 19 minutes of the game.
For as much as Olynyk’s performance may have won the game for Boston, it’s what he represents that was the big difference between his team and Washington. The Celtics bench outscored the Wiz reserves, 48–5. The Washington bench didn’t just underperform — coach Scott Brooks used them as a tool to cause self-inflicted wounds. At a crucial point at the end of the third quarter, Brooks played a lineup that featured Bojan Bogdanovic, Jason Smith, and Ian Mahinmi. Brooks has massively improved this team, but this was coaching malpractice. We’re not even going to get into why Kelly Oubre Jr. was relegated to making fun 3-pointer gestures on the bench. Where Stevens was able to mix and match, even in Game 95, until he found the perfect combo of players — and hit the lottery with the most random, unexpected performance of the playoffs — Brooks played his worst guys at the worst possible time, and his team paid for it with its playoff life.
That’s why you experiment.