The Celtics played their 71st game and are starting to settle down after reeling a bit from Jae Crowder’s high ankle sprain.
The team’s spiritual leader and one of its better defenders missed his fifth consecutive game Monday but the Celtics looked more prepared for making their stretch run without him.
Coach Brad Stevens kept his playing rotation to nine men instead of throwing out a myriad of combinations as he did the past few games. The Celtics were totally out of rhythm in losses to Indiana, Oklahoma City, and Toronto but now have used back-to-back wins over lottery-bound Philadelphia and Orlando to settle themselves.
Stevens used nine men in the 107-96 victory over the Magic, a workmanlike effort against a shorthanded team. The win wasn’t picturesque but the bright spot was the return of Kelly Olynyk, who posted his best game since a 12-game absence with a bruised right shoulder, scoring 22 points in 21:26.
The Celtics are still in the midst of a confusing four-team race for the third playoff speed. After Monday, the Heat (40-29) are .003 ahead of the Celtics and Hawks (41-30), while the Hornets (40-30) are a half-game behind.
The Celtics own the tiebreaker with Miami and Charlotte, but not with the Hawks. And there are games left against each team — the last three games of the season. The Celtics would like to grab that third seed, get home-court advantage, and potentially avoid the Cavaliers until the Eastern Conference finals.
There are 11 games left and seven come against teams either in the playoffs or on the cusp. The Celtics have to be prepared for the playoffs. They have to forge on without Crowder, who may not return until after the team returns from the upcoming five-game West Coast trip .
Getting Olynyk to feel comfortable again was critical. In his three previous games, he was 5 for 22 from the field and 1 for 10 from the 3-point line. Olynyk is a classic rhythm player. It was predictable that he would require a couple of games to get his shooting stroke back.
“You miss six weeks of basketball, you’re going to be rusty when you get back,” Stevens said of Olynyk. “Every game you play and every practice you have, you feel a little better. You don’t know when that’s really going to happen, especially with an upper-body injury. He hasn’t been able to shoot much but you know it was going to come around at some point.”
The way Olynyk stretches the floor is essential for the Celtics, and he had been playing with the highest confidence of his three NBA seasons. His injury was unfortunate but the Celtics managed without him, though they were limited.
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge built an equally talented roster for the express purpose of being able to compensate for injuries. The team played well when Marcus Smart missed a stretch. They have been resilient most of the season — except in the past few games when Crowder’s absence was quite noticeable.
They were punched in the mouth in losses to Oklahoma City and Toronto, flat embarrassed defensively in stretches. On Sunday against the 76ers, the Celtics played as if they knew Crowder wasn’t coming back for a while. They grinded out a 120-105 win.
They came away pleased.
On Monday they looked more like themselves. The ball moved. The shots were free. They scored at will. Olynyk helped stretch the floor and improved the team’s spacing. It is important he gains more confidence and gets completely healthy in these next 11 games.
Crowder, who sat at the end of the bench Monday wearing a walking boot, is not going to be back soon. So it will be up to Olynyk to help compensate for his absence because the next few weeks will be challenging.
“You need to score points to win and defensively we’ve been pretty good and we’re trying to keep guys under wraps,” Olynyk said. “And if we can get out and score on the other end, give us spread-out, balanced scoring where they don’t know where it’s coming from it’s really tough to guard.”
With Olynyk back in form, Stevens’s next assignment is getting Smart untracked. Smart went 1-for-11 shooting Monday and is now shooting 29.4 percent in the past 11 games. After not getting back on a defensive assignment following a missed 3-pointer, Smart was removed from the game by Stevens.
It’s been a tough second half for the second-year guard, but Stevens knows he has to get the best out of Smart for the Celtics to be whole. The Celtics need to be whole by mid-April to make any type of significant playoff push.
“[Sunday] he made some and had a pretty productive offensive day. [Monday] wasn’t his night,” Stevens said. “You have to continue to shoot the good ones. You have to continue to shoot the right ones. When you shoot the right ones it allows you to rebound because you’re in position.. He’s going to have to make the right play and continue to believe. We believe in him.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.