BOSTON — Whether it was because of the fan rocking a Gonzaga sweatshirt in the stands or because he finally feels some stability in his right ankle again, Kelly Olynyk was a different player Tuesday than he has been all season.
The tentative rookie who passed up open shots and hesitated when rotating on defense suddenly disappeared. In his place was a confident, poised 7-footer who displayed many of the skills that made him a first-round pick last June.
“He came alive,” Courtney Lee said. “He was the Gonzaga killer. I think it was because somebody in the stands had a Gonzaga pullover and was calling for him, so that got him going. I’m happy for the young fella.”
Lee was on the court with Olynyk for some of the Celtics’ most successful stretches in their 92-91 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. Even in defeat, the loss shook up the Celtics’ bench and locker room, with Olynyk scoring a career-high 21 points and dishing out five assists in 24 minutes off the bench. Kris Humphries and Olynyk played so well, Celtics coach Brad Stevens kept the starting frontcourt of Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass and Jeff Green on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.
Olynyk’s first two months in the NBA should really be broken into two categories: pre-sprained ankle and post-sprained ankle. Before the sprain, which occurred in the Nov. 22 loss to Indiana, Olynyk was playing 23 minutes a night and averaging a respectable 7.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Then he missed 10 games and the lingering effects hampered his already tenuous assimilation to the pro game.
Although Olynyk returned to the court Dec. 13, it wasn’t until recently that he finally got comfortable on his ankle again. He entered Tuesday averaging only 3.7 points and 3.5 rebounds in just 13 minutes per game. If anything, he looked even worse at times than his statistics indicated.
“You’ve got to get back in the flow,” Olynyk said. “It’s not the same. First of all, you don’t feel the same. You don’t have the same push or the same power, so your shot’s a little bit off. There’s little things here and there, your jumping and stuff, you’ve got to get back into that physical presence, too, because with that ankle, you’re not moving for two weeks, so it’s kind of tough.”
Feeling better is nice, but it doesn’t mean much if a player can’t play. Olynyk had logged more than 15 minutes in a game just once since he returned and had played less than seven minutes in two of Boston’s last four games. His playing time on Tuesday was not only his highest since Nov. 20, it was more time than he has received in all but six games this season.
“It’s not that he hasn’t been doing it,” Humphries said. “He got extended minutes. We were playing well with him in. He shot the ball with confidence. He’s a playmaker, can pass, just a really good all-around player. I think at lot of times it’s just playing minutes, being comfortable and having some things go your way as well.”
Things went Olynyk’s way, finally, on Tuesday. If only they had gone the Celtics’ way as well.