Seven minutes before Evan Turner hit the game-winning shot in Portland that helped light the fuse on the Boston Celtics' recent surge into playoff contention, Kelly Olynyk landed awkwardly on the foot of an opposing player and suffered an ankle injury that has dampened his sophomore season.
Olynyk missed 18 games and over a month's time while recovering and has simply not been himself since returning to the floor. The Celtics continue to post excellent numbers when the 7-footer is in the game and his presence alone at times has helped stretch out opposing defenses, but regardless of how Boston's playoff fate plays out over the final 14 games of the season, the team would benefit from seeing Olynyk get back on track a bit.
Olynyk experienced expected rust early in his return, but seemed to be turning a corner last week. Over a three-game span that featured wins over Miami, Memphis and Orlando, he averaged 12.7 points while shooting 51.7 percent from the floor, including 40 percent beyond the 3-point arc. But over the past four games, Olynyk has had just one quality outing (20 points in 23 minutes against Oklahoma City) and three duds (three total points on combined 1-for-18 shooting in games against Indiana, Philadelphia and San Antonio).
The 23-year-old big man simply doesn't look as comfortable on the court in the aftermath of the ankle injury. He's been hesitant at times to shoot -- that's not a new issue, but enough so that Celtics coach Brad Stevens suggested he was going to have the Garden crowd scream "Shoot it!" when Olynyk passed up open looks -- and has simply been a bit clumsy at times on the floor.
It's hard to argue with the results. Boston has gotten a boost lately from its new-look second unit and Olynyk's struggles haven't hindered that. In 10 games since returning, Olynyk still owns a net rating -- the difference between the team's offensive and defensive ratings when he's on the court -- of plus-9.7. The Celtics' defense, surprisingly, is six points better when he's on the court than off with a glossy rating of 92.4 points allowed per 100 possessions in that span.
Even while his shot has been off -- Olynyk is shooting 32.5 percent overall and 28.1 percent beyond the 3-point arc since his return -- the Celtics have still been able to run their offense through him, and his ability to draw bigs away from the basket has aided the second unit even as it plays without Isaiah Thomas.
"I think Kelly is starting to get back," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said during his weekly call to Boston sports radio 98.5 the SportsHub last week after Olynyk's 20-point outing. "There was definitely some rust for being out so long ... but Kelly has had some really good offensive games and his defense is improving. We’re happy with Kelly's development."
But that's maybe the biggest gripe that Celtics observers have with Olynyk at the moment. Even if you look past his recent slump, his per-100 possession stat line for the season is almost identical to a year ago. His modest increases in his basic stat line (10.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.8 assists this season) are simply the result of an uptick in minutes.
The biggest difference in Olynyk's stat line is more 3-point attempts (up to 31.8 percent of his attempts this season after being 22.7 last season), which has lowered his offensive rebound rate and contributed to a dip in his total rebound percentage (14.8, down 3.2 percent from a season ago). He's done a better job of getting his body in the way of opponents more often this season, but his footwork and ability to defend near the basket are still a work in progress.
"Defensively, he’s going to be in position -- there’s going to be plays where certain guys direct him a little bit, but he’s gotta hold his ground as best that he can," Stevens said earlier this month. "What Kelly has to do, in my opinion, is be great in the initial pick-and-roll coverage up at the ball. Then he’s gotta be a great charge-taker. He’s a smart guy, he gets himself in position well, he’s going to impact some people vertically, but not everybody. There’s different ways to impact the game, defensively."
The league's player-tracking data suggests Olynyk allows his opponents to shoot only a slight bit above their season averages. Synergy Sports' defensive data is less encouraging, noting that Olynyk allows 0.898 points per play, which ranks him in the 34th percentile among all league players.
Synergy's data suggests that Olynyk can get bullied in the post at times (1.103 PPP, 12th percentile) and his numbers in isolation are not much better (1.07 PPP, 13th percentile). The Celtics knew Olynyk was a project on the defensive end and it's simply a matter of teaching him how to maximize his size and get him comfortable battling more physical players.
But, as Stevens has often noted, that's why the Celtics absolutely need Olynyk to consistently take advantage of his offensive mismatches at the other end. Opposing bigs struggle to defend him to the 3-point line and he should be able to consistently exploit those matchups when opponents close out too hard.
Fair or not, Olynyk will be compared to the players picked around him in last year's draft, with those frustrated by his recent inconsistency often pointing to how Milwaukee snagged Giannis Antetokounmpo two picks after him.
Olynyk was an All-Rookie second-teamer last season. He started this season as the team's starting center, but quickly shuffled back to a reserve role. The ankle injury, much like the one he endured his rookie season, certainly has set him back a bit. But the final month of the season is a chance to get himself back on track and show that he's trending in the right direction.
Olynyk just looks a bit off right now. Blame the ankle, blame the rust. The Celtics' second unit could use a boost with Thomas sidelined by a back bruise, and Boston needs to find a way to get Olynyk comfortable on the floor again.