WASHINGTON — When Kelly Olynyk found himself bombarded with hateful messages from Cleveland Cavaliers fans after his role in dislocating Kevin Love‘s shoulder two seasons ago, Evan Turner felt it necessary to stand up for his Boston Celtics teammate.
“Honest to god, man, Kelly literally — you ask anybody in our locker room like our bigs — Kelly can’t box out to save his life,” said Turner, trying to justify why Olynyk might have latched onto Love’s arm as the two chased a rebound during the first round of the 2015 playoffs.
Turner rambled for nearly a minute that night, unable to process how anyone could suggest that Olynyk intentionally tried to hurt Love. Pleaded Turner, “Kelly doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”
Poor fundamentals are no excuse for dangerous play, and the NBA suspended Olynyk a game for his actions. Love, who initially fumed that it was a “bush-league play,” eventually reached out to Olynyk to let him know there were no hard feelings.
Olynyk still hears boos in Cleveland. And Sunday, he’ll endure the wrath of another fan base when the Boston Celtics visit the Washington Wizards in Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series at the Verizon Center.
Olynyk has drawn the ire of Washington fans following his flare-up with Kelly Oubre Jr., who suggested that Olynyk has repeatedly hit him in the head while setting screens this series. After being floored by an Olynyk screen in Game 3, Oubre snapped and charged at Olynyk, knocking him to the floor and earning a flagrant foul 2 and ejection.
The NBA suspended Oubre for Game 4, though he has maintained that Olynyk’s head hits triggered his outburst. That has reignited the debate about whether Olynyk is a dirty player, including a thread on Reddit’s NBA page and network talking heads salivating at the chance to reference the Olynyk-Love incident as proof Olynyk is some sort of goon.
The insinuation has left many in the Celtics’ locker room flummoxed yet again.
To teammates and staffers, Olynyk is a 7-foot goofball. Teammates love needling him about his eclectic wardrobe and ever-present baseball cap, which Olynyk has worn even with formal wear during Celtics community events. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge relentlessly teases the fourth-year player about his facial hair, comparing Olynyk’s chin patch to that of Shaggy from Scooby Doo.
Olynyk, with his signature flowing locks, is the guy who once ate a double-stuffed Moe’s burrito in four bites on the team plane, much to the delight of those teammates videotaping him. He’s the guy who chirped the 7-Eleven Twitter account when he couldn’t find a location in the Boston area honoring the store’s one-day BOGO promotion.
At the Celtics’ off-day practice Saturday on the campus of Georgetown University, Olynyk broke away from playfully lobbing half-court heaves with Boston coaching assistants and was bombarded with questions about the Oubre dustup and the suggestion that he’s a dirty player.
“I mean, I don’t think I’m a dirty player. My teammates don’t think I’m a dirty player,” Olynyk said with a shrug. “It’s basketball, it happens. You have to screen, you have to box out, you have to do things. It’s not something you focus on, you just go out there and play the next game.”
Olynyk’s late growth spurt has been both a curse and a blessing on the basketball court. The son of a Canadian hoops coach, Olynyk grew up a Steve Nash-loving point guard, then grew seven inches before his final high school season. Sometimes he still seems to be getting comfortable with his size, but Olynyk can handle the ball like a guard, and his shooting separates him from most big men.
To be certain, Olynyk shouldn’t be immune from criticism in this debate. Screen grabs from the opening round of the playoffs show at least one instance in which it appeared Olynyk clutched Robin Lopez‘s arm in a fashion similar to the way he injured Love. Olynyk has been whistled for 18 offensive fouls this season, many of which were illegal screens. Olynyk sometimes pushes off the player he’s screening, and, because of his size, there are times when his hands extend around the head of the guard he’s attempting to impede.
But the Celtics certainly don’t agree with the notion that he’s a dirty player.
“I think there’s a certain physicality that you have to play with that all good teams play with and, at the same time, there’s a line that can’t be crossed,” coach Brad Stevens said. “And that’s not one guy, that’s every guy on both teams. But, no, I’m not worried about that from [Olynyk’s] standpoint.”
For Olynyk, his focus must remain on playing quality basketball. In the postseason, the Celtics own a net rating of plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions with Olynyk on the court. That’s better than Al Horford (plus-5.6) and Isaiah Thomas (plus-3.4) through nine postseason games.
Olynyk is averaging 8.2 points and 3.3 rebounds over 18.5 minutes per game. He’s shooting 52.7 percent from the floor and 43.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc. His floor-stretching abilities have been key regardless of whom he’s on the court with.
Thomas stood up for Olynyk and his screening after Game 3 and sounded a lot like Turner while suggesting that Olynyk did little to escalate the situation with Oubre.
“Kelly’s not trying to make anybody mad,” Thomas said. “Not to put anything on Kelly, but he’s just not like that. I guess you can pick and choose who you want to do that to.”
Asked Saturday about the notion that teams pick on Olynyk because of his obvious docile nature, Thomas added, “Like I said, they know who to target. They know who to go at. The whole NBA knows certain players they can target and certain players they can’t.”
That’s not a knock on Olynyk. Thomas is merely suggesting that Olynyk isn’t the type of player to retaliate, which Olynyk’s composed reaction to Oubre’s shove demonstrated. When you think about the dirtiest players in NBA history, being passive is rarely one of their qualities.
Still, Olynyk will be booed mercilessly Sunday. After all, this is how sports work. Wizards fans truly believe Olynyk’s actions got Oubre so worked up he had no choice but to respond.
It’s ironic, of course, that should Boston ultimately prevail against the Wizards, it’s almost certain the Cavaliers will be waiting in the next round. And that means Olynyk shouldn’t expect the booing — or the debate about the cleanliness of his play — to stop anytime soon.