BOSTON -- When Boston Celtics big man Kelly Olynyk hit the floor to start the second quarter of Friday's game against the Phoenix Suns without his now familiar man bun, there was some consternation inside TD Garden. For most of his first two seasons in the NBA, Olynyk has played with a thin headband holding back his flowing locks, but he switched to the trendier man bun almost exclusively this past December and his performance spiked when you compared his hairstyle splits (yes, some of us actually track these things; call it head-vanced stats).
So when Olynyk missed his first two shots, it felt like confirmation that, for whatever reason, he struggles when he lets his hair flow. Instead, Olynyk erupted for 15 second-quarter points -- including 13 straight in a span of just 2:24 -- helping the Celtics pull away from the Suns en route to a 117-103 victory.
While it's impossible to know if there's any actual correlation between Olynyk's play and his hairstyle, even the Celtics' in-arena staff acknowledged the difference earlier this week. During a TV timeout in Wednesday's game against the Pacers, a filmed segment rolled in which his teammates were asked to give the man bun a thumbs-up or thumbs-down (everyone voted up except Jared Sullinger, the man with the orange-tinged Mohawk who changed his initial thumbs-down to a thumbs-sideways). The Celtics then posted a graphic that noted how Olynyk was averaging 5.4 more points per game and shooting 7.8 percent higher with a man bun versus the headband in 19 home games this season.
By our unofficial count, Olynyk has utilized the man bun 23 times this season and 16 times with the flow. He's averaging 10.9 points on 47.8 percent shooting with the bun, a noticeable uptick from the headband (7.9 points per game on 40.7 percent shooting).
After Friday's game, it's going to be a little bit more difficult to choose between Team Man Bun and Team Long Hair. Olynyk finished with a team-high 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting to go along with 9 rebounds, 3 steals and a block in 26:32. If not for Marcus Smart's first career triple-double, Olynyk would have been the story of the night as Boston's bench turned in a big effort and allowed the starters some extra rest as the Celtics navigate a stretch of four games in five nights.
"Everything feels better when the ball hits the net," said coach Brad Stevens. "I think that's the bottom line. [Olynyk] can shoot the basketball. He was clearly feeling good. And once he hit one or two, the rim just looks a little wider."
The Celtics were up only seven when Olynyk lit his fuse with a 3-pointer from the right wing after Tyson Chandler gave him too much space with 3:07 to play in the second quarter. Olynyk got another wide-open 3-point look from the left wing in transition a short time later and canned it. He was a couple of steps beyond the 3-point stripe but had a little screen from Jae Crowder when he hit his third consecutive triple with 1:50 to play.
Heading back on defense, Olynyk threw his hands out wide and let that long hair flow as he ran. It wasn't exactly the Michael Jordan shoulder shrug, but maybe more Leonardo DiCaprio's "I'm the king of the world!" in "Titanic."
But Olynyk wasn't done. A stutter step in transition helped him finish a layup over a pair of Suns defenders. And he capped his outburst by driving baseline on Markieff Morris and, even as Chandler scrambled over to help, Olynyk simply finished on the other side of the rim, picking up his left-handed dribble and finishing with a right-handed layup off the glass. The Celtics led by 18 with 43 seconds to play in the half.
Olynyk admitted it helped that the ball found him when he had quality looks: "I think that helps anybody out. The ball will find you on certain nights. ... If it's coming to you, through you, it's a lot easier."
The 7-foot Canadian needed a night like this. It had been a bit of a rough January before Friday's game. The third-year big man shuffled into Boston's starting lineup on Jan. 2, replacing the struggling Sullinger, and responded with 34 minutes of floor time (a season high for a non-overtime game) in a win over the Nets. But the Celtics dropped their next four games, and Olynyk's playing time dipped, with him logging only a mere 11:23 in Tuesday's loss to the Knicks.
Olynyk moved back into a reserve role Wednesday and was minus-15 in plus/minus over 15:16 as the Celtics leaned on small-ball lineups to fuel a late rally to beat the Pacers.
For a Celtics team desperately seeking someone to give the bench a much-needed spark, Olynyk's outburst was a sight for sore eyes (and Smart helped out with an assist-happy first half that fueled his triple-double). Boston's offense still fell victim to lulls in scoring, which allowed the Suns to trim a 25-point deficit to 13 in the second half. But Olynyk hit a key 3-pointer with about eight minutes to play that helped keep Phoenix at arm's length.
For the season, Olynyk is averaging 9.7 points on 45.3 percent shooting overall (he also has made 41.2 percent of his 3-point attempts). His field goal percentage is down a bit from last season, but he's one of the few Celtics to consistently knock down triples and that's why Stevens has implored him to keep shooting. The Celtics are a better team when Olynyk is aggressive and helps spread the floor by forcing defenses to defend him out on the perimeter.
Olynyk has been an advanced stats darling for Boston in his first two seasons, but his net rating at the moment is just plus-0.6. The only regular with a worse mark at the moment is Evan Turner at plus-0.1 (though less-used Tyler Zeller, David Lee, R.J. Hunter, Terry Rozier and James Young are all in the negative). The Celtics' inability to score consistently with their bench has dragged Olynyk's numbers down a bit, and he might be the key to getting them headed the other way.
And whether that's with a man bun or letting the long hair flow, the Celtics need Olynyk to fuel their bench offense as he did on Friday.