What the Celtics are showing in this series, besides their resiliency, is that they are a team beyond Isaiah Thomas.
In Wednesday night’s Game 5 of this Eastern Conference first-round series against the Bulls, the Celtics were able to overcome a 2-point fourth-quarter deficit behind contributions from players other than Thomas.
Months ago, Thomas was tabbed Mr. Fourth Quarter for his heroics in the final 12 minutes. But in recent weeks his teammates have lightened the load for the two-time All-Star. The wealth was spread in the Celtics’ 108-97 win, their third consecutive of the series, as they used a 20-4 run, with all the points scored by Thomas, Al Horford, and Kelly Olynyk.
Horford and Olynyk have been maligned this season. Horford signed a maximum contact but seemingly didn’t put up maximum numbers during the regular season. There were some games in which he was passive, waiting too long for the action to come to him.
Horford is never going to be ultra-aggressive. That’s not his style. That’s not his personality. But Wednesday night he picked the perfect moment to flourish, scoring 19 of his 21 points in the second half and 11 in the fourth quarter. His dunk extended the lead to 91-85, and then after Isaiah Canaan responded with two buckets, Horford came back with a 3-point play to spark a 13-0 run.
The Bulls, again without Rajon Rondo and relying heavily on the guile and skill of Dwyane Wade, grew frustrated, and Horford dominated his matchup with Robin Lopez in the second half. That was a matchup Horford lost decisively in the first two games, but he has proven his worth in the past three games.
After averaging 13 points in the first two games, Horford has bumped that up to 18 in the three victories, along with 27 total rebounds and 19 assists. Horford has no issue taking a back seat to Thomas, but on a night when Thomas missed 11 of 17 shots, including 9 of 10 3-point attempts, Horford desperately needed to score.
As for Olynyk, he played just 20 minutes but finished with 14 points and five rebounds. He avoided those boneheaded “Oh, Kelly” plays for the most part, and he was aggressive around the basket offensively and provided rebounding.
The Celtics are not a star-studded team, but they have been successful this season because of their depth. While the Bulls struggle to find a point guard, with coach Fred Hoiberg pulling Anthony Morrow from deep in his bullpen to provide 8 points, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has mostly stuck with a nine-man rotation, and those nine have responded with meaningful moments.
Terry Rozier continues to be a spark. Marcus Smart played steady ball and didn’t allow his scrape with Jimmy Butler to carry over. And Jonas Jerebko picked up two steals in nine minutes.
Eventually the Celtics were going to begin playing like a No. 1 seed, and it has been because Thomas has not had to dominate offensively.
“We really didn’t shoot well, but we kind of stuck with it and made plays,” Olynyk said. “We made some hard-nosed plays, got a couple of opportunity rebounds. Defensively, we just stayed intact and tried to keep everything in front of us.”
Olynyk has been criticized, sometimes rightfully so, for his lack of aggression and coordination. But he has averaged 12 points over the past two games, with his ability to shoot from the perimeter helping the Celtics stretch the floor and create driving lanes.
He completed a 3-point play with 8:09 left that put the Celtics up, 89-85. The usually mild-mannered Canadian celebrated enthusiastically.
“This is the biggest game I’ve played in my career,” he said. “It was pretty big for all of us. When a foul [was called] all I could think of was ‘Happy Gilmore,’ like ‘get in the hole, go home!’ So that’s all I was thinking, and it did.”
It was a typical Olynyk response. He’s an admittedly goofy kid, and there have been times when he hasn’t appeared ready for the moment in previous years. But for the first time in his career, he appears to be playing with supreme confidence. In a series in which the Celtics got pushed around during the first two games, manhandled by the bigger Bulls, Olynyk was needed for more than his 3-point shooting.
And he and Horford were a pivotal combination for the Celtics in Game 5’s critical moments. Horford scored 9 of the Celtics’ 15 points midway through the fourth quarter as they pulled away. It wasn’t a podium game for the former All-Star. He instead spoke quietly in the locker room.
He allowed his teammates to speak for him, and Thomas was flowing with praise.
“That’s what we need him to do,” Thomas said of Horford. “He’s a hell of a player. Even the stat sheet doesn’t explain how good of a player he is sometimes where he’s not scoring or rebounding. He’s doing a lot of things to help out everybody else on this team. He’s a complete basketball player.”