Celtics forward Kelly Olynyk finished up his press conference after helping save the Celtics’ season and took a solitary walk down a hallway in the bowels of TD Garden. He made a sharp right turn toward the locker room when he saw the team’s co-owner, Steve Pagliuca.
“There he is,” Pagliuca said, beaming. “That was epic.”
Olynyk gave a sort of shy chuckle and nodded his head as he shook Pagliuca’s hand.
“We needed it,” he said. “We needed it.”
As the Celtics prepared for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Wizards, they called it a glorious opportunity. They said that a Game 7 can be a night when legends are born, sometimes improbably.
On Monday, with the Wizards stubbornly lingering in the fourth quarter, there was Olynyk, who is generally known just as much for awkward plays as he is brilliant ones.
The unlikely hero poured in 14 points with a mixture of assertive drives and 3-pointers, thwarting Washington’s late rally and leading the Celtics to a 115-105 victory that sent them to the Eastern Conference finals, where they will face the Cavaliers.
That reality was not lost on the Garden fans as they chanted “We want Cleveland” while the final seconds ticked down. Of course, they should be careful what they wish for, as LeBron James and friends are a perfect 8-0 in these playoffs and have been resting and sharpening their sabers since May 7.
“I think they’re better [now] than any of the four times we played them,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “including the last one, when they smashed us.”
Game 1 of the conference finals will be played at TD Garden on Wednesday, continuing what could be a historic week for this franchise. On Tuesday, the Celtics will have the best odds of securing the No. 1 overall pick at the draft lottery, getting one step closer to potentially adding another franchise cornerstone.
Of course, they might already have one. As dazzling as Olynyk was, finishing with 26 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists, All-Star Isaiah Thomas’s role was just as important. Ever since his magical 53-point night in Boston’s Game 2 win, Thomas had mostly been bottled up as the Wizards sent two and sometimes even three defenders his way.
Washington was daring someone else to beat them, and as it won three out of four games heading into Monday, it was not clear if it was possible.
Thomas spent part of Sunday night watching a replay of the memorable Game 7 battle between Paul Pierce and LeBron James in the 2008 Eastern Conference semifinals to get hyped up. And then he took the court in his own Game 7 and probed and picked his spots, and ignited the game-defining 18-2 run that started in the third quarter and carried into the fourth. He had 29 points, 12 assists, and just two turnovers.
These playoffs have been a devastating whirlwind for Thomas. His younger sister was killed in a car crash prior to Game 1 of the first round, he has made two cross-country trips to Tacoma to be with his grieving family, and he had a tooth knocked out earlier in this series, an incident that required extensive dental surgery. But he has never stopped.
“Man,” Stevens said, “is he a tough guy.”
Olynyk even gave Thomas credit for his own fourth-quarter burst. He said the Wizards were once again swarming Thomas and daring someone else to beat them, and so he did.
As Washington’s Bradley Beal caught fire midway through the fourth quarter, hitting a pair of 3-pointers, Olynyk answered him time and again at the other end.
Over a stretch of 1 minute, 15 seconds, Olynyk hit a 10-footer, drained a 3, and converted a finger roll, helping the Celtics cling to a 103-97 lead. And he was not done. He made another difficult layup with 4:17 left, and then drilled a 3 at the 3:26 mark that gave the Celtics a 110-100 lead. Boston’s advantage did not dip below 7 points again.
“They weren’t going to let [Thomas] make plays at the end,” Olynyk said. “They were going to make other people do it, so someone had to do it.”
Prior to Monday, the defining moment for Olynyk in this series was getting flattened by Washington’s Kelly Oubre in Game 3 after Oubre charged him for committing an illegal screen. Now, fans who remained on their feet for the final six minutes of the game were chanting Olynyk’s first name loudly and often. Olynyk said later that he heard them, in between the “MVP” chants for Thomas.
Olynyk’s game spearheaded a redemptive performance for the Celtics bench following a putrid Game 6 performance in which the reserves scored a total of 5 points. There was Marcus Smart (13 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) soaring in for powerful rebounds against the taller Wizards. There was rookie Jaylen Brown (9 points, three rebounds) diving on the floor for loose balls.
The Wizards leaned on their two stars — Beal and John Wall — throughout the night, almost excessively so. The duo played the entire second half until subbing out with just eight seconds left, and played a total of 90 minutes combined.
Beal had 38 points but Wall, who starred in this series, including his Game 6 game-winner, missed his final 11 shots.
“[The loss] is something we can look at as motivation,” Wall said. “But other than that it’s tough to think about right now.”
The Celtics, meanwhile, will just think about the Eastern Conference finals. It is a somewhat stunning rise for a team that just two seasons ago started with a 16-30 record. And now here they are.
“It’s an unbelievable moment for us,” Thomas said.
Game 1 – Wednesday, May 17, 8:30 p.m.
Game 2 – Friday, May 19 8:30 p.m.
Game 3 – Sunday, May 21 8:30 p.m.
Game 4 – Tuesday, May 23 8:30 p.m.
Game 5 * – Thursday, May 25 8:30 p.m.
Game 6 * – Saturday, May 27 8:30 p.m.
Game 7 * – Monday, May 29 8:30 p.m.