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 Cs cued up a video tribute during a timeout.
The crowd erupted to a level that neared game seven against the Wizards in the 2016-17 Eastern Conference Semifinals as the Celtics organization 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 back with a career-high 32 points.
Five of Boston’s eight losses this season have come courtesy of opponents featuring players from their 2016-2017 team. 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 shots, 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 a game-long beatdown from Olynyk.
In the first half, Horford initially got the upper hand as he scored through Olynyk on a pick-and-roll. Then the former Celtic center got revenge, blocking Horford’s shot on a drive from the right wing.
Soon after, Semi Ojeleye took over the Olynyk assignment. He fell for a fake underneath, 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, and even Guerschon Yabusele are still adjusting to covering NBA big men. They did not have a season’s familiarity with Olynyk’s abilities.
Olynyk prospered. The Miami center backed himself behind Horford in the post and caught a floating pass over the Celtics big man 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.
Olynyk was in his element. He went unfazed by the assortment of matchups Boston threw at him in the first half and exposed Boston’s continued defensive shortcomings. Routinely, he’d break off a pick and switch himself onto Shane Larkin, gaining a 13-inch advantage.
The issues went beyond inexperience, Olynyk’s motivation, and mismatches. Horford had as difficult of a time as anyone. Brad Stevens noted that the Heat controlled the pace of the game. Part of that was Olynyk setting the standard with his matchup against Horford. The Celtics center managed to get inside but only finished on 2 of 8 shots compared to Olynyk’s first half 3-of-4 shooting performance.
“We shouldn’t be surprised,” Marcus 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.”
“No excuses,” Stevens said when asked about the team’s lack of practice.
In the second half Stevens 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 four four seasons had his way with Boston’s defense.
Smart provided a moment of hope, 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,” another reporter noted during the game.
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 afterwards and nearly injured himself before stumbling to the other end of the court.
At that point, the damage had been done to the Celtics. Olynyk backed Horford down with eight minutes left in the game and drew a foul—the fifth on Horford. The Celtics center was heated. After an angry conversation with the referee, Horford got right on Olynyk’s back off the in-bounds and reached in for the ball. He picked up his sixth foul immediately and checked out with roughly eight minutes left.
Frustration, easy baskets, and 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 defensive mistakes and the team’s lack of aggressive offense. The Celtics earned themselves a final possession to steal a win back, as they did against Indiana earlier this week, but Irving couldn’t finish his final leaning shot.
“You keep biting on all those fakes like we did all night,” Stevens said. “You let [Olynyk] 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.”
In both their returning visits to Boston, Olynyk and Jerebko showed out against the team that let them walk in free agency. Both left Boston looking to build on excellent performances.