Miami Heat

Why the Heat hopes this player’s performance in Boston is only the beginning

Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk beats Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving to the basket for a dunk during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. The Heat won 90-89.
Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk beats Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving to the basket for a dunk during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. The Heat won 90-89. AP

Marcus Smart didn’t mince words when it came time to describe what happened in the Heat’s stunning 90-89 victory over the Celtics Wednesday night at TD Garden.

“We got our ass kicked by Kelly Olynyk,” the Celtics guard said.

Those eight words are something most Heat fans didn’t expect to hear – or see happen – against the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Not because Olynyk, 26, wasn’t capable of scoring a career-high 32 points or making a career-high six three-pointers like he did Wednesday. The 7-foot Canadian has always had guard-like skills, and he proved he’s capable of big outbursts last May when he scored 26 points in Boston’s Game 7 victory over the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Wednesday’s performance was simply eye-opening – even to some of his teammates – because Olynyk finally played with the kind of aggression they’ve been pleading with him to play with all season.

“More than anything, he was a competitor,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Olynyk, who put up a season-high 15 shots from the field (three more than his previous high) and eight three-point attempts (also three more than his previous high).

“He was really aggressive, looking for his shot. That’s what every man in that locker room is telling him to be all the time. Not necessarily to put up 30 [shots], but to be aggressive. The guys want him shooting the basketball, because it makes us a better team.”

As Olynyk was pelted with questions from Celtics reporters about his first game back in Boston since signing a four-year, $50 million deal with the Heat this summer (he still owns a home in Boston by the way), Heat point guard Goran Dragic, who missed his second consecutive game with a strained ligament in his left elbow, reminded Olynyk how many times this season he’s asked him to be as aggressive as he was Wednesday.

Olynyk smiled back and responded “all the time.”

“The way teams are defending us now, especially in pick-and-rolls, they start blitzing us. If Kelly pops, nobody is there [to guard him],” Dragic explained of why Heat guards plead with Olynyk all the time to shoot it when he’s open on the perimeter. “We don’t want him to pump fake or put the ball on the floor. We just want him to shoot. He’s an excellent shooter. We want him to shoot close to six, seven threes a game. That helps a lot because it opens the floor and brings that other [defender] out [of the paint]. It’s easier to create.”

Miami Heat forward Kelly Olynyk speaks to the media after scoring 32 points in his return to Boston to help the Miami Heat beat the Celtics 90-89.

Said Dion Waiters: “I yell at him all the time to shoot because me and him are mostly in the pick-and-roll together. I tell him it opens up the game for me. If you shoot, you make two, you miss two, you keep shooting no matter what, especially if they’re going to give it to you.”

For Olynyk there were two huge reasons to be more aggressive than usual against the Celtics. One, the Heat (16-15) was minus four key rotation players (Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson and Justise Winslow) yet again, and there was the motivation of playing his former team (at one point Wednesday in the second half Olynyk hit a three-pointer, looked at the Celtics bench and jawed at them).

But Dragic hopes this is the beginning of a fresh mentality for Olynyk, who is shooting 42.9 percent from three-point range and 51.2 percent from the field. Having played simply as a role player for most of his career off the bench in his four years in Boston, Dragic said he feels like it’s just taken time for Olynyk to realize he’s really got the green light to let it fly.

Wednesday’s performance, he hopes, gives him the confidence to do it more often.

“It’s the same thing that happened with Luke Babbitt and Wayne [Ellington] when they got here,” Dragic said. “It’s just a different system. I think he’s going to get it. It’s not that hard. Just shoot the ball. He’s got a green light. That’s good. Coach believes in him, we believe in him and we want him to shoot those shots.”

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra speaks to the media after the Miami Heat beat the Celtics in Boston, 90-89.

Said Waiters: “He can do a lot for us as you can see.”

▪ Olynyk said his left knee, which got caught underneath his body following his game-winning dunk late in the fourth quarter Wednesday, was not bothering him after the game.

“I landed kind of awkwardly... and I hyperextended it a little bit,” Olynyk explained. “It straightened out and my leg just went dead kind of like if your arm goes dead if you hit your funny bone. I couldn’t feel my leg. So I was trying to run up the floor, but I literally couldn’t feel my leg hitting the ground. It was kind of a weird feeling. It subsided. It was kind of normal about 10 minutes later. But it was the weirdest feeling. I didn't know what was going on.”

Related stories from Miami Herald