May 16, 2017
PHOTO BY THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Boston Celtics guards Isaiah Thomas (4) and Marcus Smart (36), and center Al Horford (42) celebrate with center Kelly Olynyk after Olynyk sank a basket during the fourth quarter of Game 7 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Washington Wizards.
By STEVE KRAUSE
Hooray for Kelly Olynyk. He is just the latest Boston sports figure to be thrust into the spotlight because of an unexpected contribution he made on the grand stage.
I admit to not having much of a feeling for Olynyk one way or the other. He’s one of an endless number of players who have carpe diemed, shall we say, and saved the day while his more celebrated teammates watched in slack-jawed admiration (and probably shock as well).
Olynyk is a 7-foot tall Zag, which means he’s used to being in situations where the moment is perhaps too big for his teammates (such as this year’s national championship men’s basketball game against North Carolina). He can be alternatingly heroic and exasperating. As one of my friends used to say about Isiah Thomas (the Piston), he has a tendency to keep both teams in the game.
Monday night, he put on his cape and carried the Celtics past the Washington Wizards and propelled them to the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, where they will no doubt serve as cannon fodder for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
How lightly-regarded is Olynyk? He’s seven feet tall and when people start listing the pros and cons of the Celtics as they’re currently constructed, the first thing you hear is “if they only had a rebounder.” That tells you all you need to know.
Even Monday night, he was wowing ‘em with his 3-point set shot — which doesn’t exactly address the problem of a 7-footer who doesn’t rebound well. But why quibble? That set shot, as incongruous as it seemed, helped the Celtics get to this point. It’s not the first time in history that, as Bob Cousy was fond of saying, “offense by accident” has made the difference.
The first time I can remember the phenomenon of the unheralded player thrusting himself to the forefront occurred with the 1967 Red Sox, and there were a ton of them. The most prominent of them was Jerry Adair, who came to the team in June and proceeded to hit .291 the rest of the season. He was a clutch as they came that year. But Gary Waslewski fit the metric more. Waslewski was a journeyman pitcher whose No. 1 claim to fame was a 1.000 fielding percentage in 1968. But he pitched Game 6 of the ‘67 World Series and held the St. Louis Cardinals to two runs. The big bats of the Sox carried the day and they won, 8-4.
In 1972, Garnett “Ace” Bailey, a fourth-liner for the Bruins, scored the winning goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Rangers after New York had rallied from a 5-1 deficit to tie the game.
That was definitely his high-water mark. Sadly, Bailey was a passenger on one of the airplanes that was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
Four years later, it was Glenn McDonald’s turn. The Long Beach State product was the Celtics’ top draft pick in 1975, but really didn’t see much playing time as a rookie. But in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA playoffs against the Phoenix Suns, which went into three overtimes, McDonald had to come into the game because just about every other Celtic had fouled out. He scored eight points during the five-minute period and helped the Celtics win the game, 128-126. Two days later, they won the championship.
And how about Dave Roberts in 2004? The Red Sox got him for one reason: to pinch-run in the late innings in hopes of stealing a run. And he did it so well in the ALCS against the Yankees he’ll never have to buy a meal in Boston again.
There are so many more. In 2011, Michael Ryder, whom everybody was ready to run out of town, made what could have been the save of the first-round series between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. While Tim Thomas got all the accolades in that Bruins march to the Stanley Cup, it was Ryder, a forward, who managed to get his stick on a shot that would have virtually ended the season (it was in Game 5, but the Habs, had they won, would have been home for Game 6 and eliminated Boston). He got into the crease and stopped a shot by Tomas Plekanec while Thomas was out of position.
Finally, let’s all stop and remember how a complete unknown named Malcolm Butler saved Super Bowl 49 for the Patriots as he stepped in to intercept a Russell Wilson pass in the end zone — one that he probably should not have thrown.
There’s plenty of basketball left, and perhaps Olynyk will develop the confidence to be a major player. But it’s not a given. With the possible exception of Butler (too early to tell), the other guys mentioned here had their moments and faded into the background after that.