To the bitter end, Brad Stevens insisted the Boston Celtics never played a meaningless game. Long eliminated from playoff contention, limping to the finish with an injury-ravaged roster, the Celtics could not give in, he preached.
Yeah, sure, everybody thought, as the final weeks ticked down.
Then Kelly Olynyk broke out with three 20-plus point games to finish the season, and even the biggest doubter had to concede Stevens was correct. With three encouraging performances, Olynyk altered the perception of his so-so rookie season into one that suggested promise.
“First of all,” Stevens acknowledged, “you have a better chance of getting your career high if you never come off the court.”
Without a doubt, injuries to Boston’s frontcourt played a role in Olynyk’s scoring spree. Kris Humphries missed five of the last six games and Jared Sullinger sat out the final three, opening time for Olynyk to average 34.6 minutes in the last three games. Before taking the court in Philadelphia — the second in a streak in which he scored 25, 28 and 24 points in succession — Olynyk admitted he would rather his success came under different circumstances.
“You never want to see anyone hurt or sidelined, but it’s part of the game,” Olynyk said. “It definitely provides an opportunity for other people. Phil (Pressey), as well, he’s gotten a lot of opportunities, some of the guys off the bench, just getting out there and getting some experience. I think it’s really valuable to play those minutes and get some looks and some touches to help me grow as a player.”
Olynyk’s primary obstacle, initially, was self-confidence. Whereas undrafted players like Pressey, Chris Johnson and Chris Babb arrived with an attitude proclaiming that they belonged, Olynyk passed up open shots and hesitated to make passes he’d normally make with ease. His beauty as a player is that he enables Stevens to run the offense through a 7-footer in the high post, but Olynyk passed up as many opportunities as he seized.
“It’s a different situation, really,” Babb said. “Myself and C.J., we came in really with nothing to lose. Kelly came in as a lottery pick, a guy to help this season, so that’s a different kind of pressure.”
Babb added: “His confidence, that’ll come with the more minutes he plays, the more experience he gets under his belt. I think he’s going to develop into a really good player at his position.”
Sounding like a broken record, Stevens reminded everybody after the season finale, again, that the Celtics still played for something down the stretch. If Olynyk’s late-season spurt turns into the blooming of a bright career, the first-year NBA coach will have been vindicated.
“I think everything matters,” Stevens said. “That’s kind of the rallying cry heading into the offseason, that every little thing you do matters. If Kelly Olynyk is a better player next year because of the last three games, the last three games were critically important. I believe that.”