Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (23) and Miami Heat’s Kelly Olynyk (9) fight for control fo the ball during the first half in Game 3 of basketball’s NBA Finals, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mark J. Terrill)

Canadian Kelly Olynyk making most of opportunity for Miami Heat in NBA Finals

Olynyk has been in and out of rotation in the NBA playoffs

Del Komarniski gets excited when he sees Kelly Olynyk report to the scorer’s table to check into a game.

“And when I see him getting subbed off the floor, I get a little angry,” Komarniski said with a laugh.

The NBA playoffs have been a roller-coaster of emotions for Olynyk’s fans and friends, including Komarniski, who coached the Miami Heat centre at South Kamloops Secondary School from his arrival as a promising Grade 8 player.

The Canadian has been in and out of Erik Spoelstra’s rotation in the NBA playoffs in the bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida, but played major minutes in Games 2 and 3 of the Finals versus the Lakers, largely because Heat big man Bam Adebayo was out with a neck strain. Olynyk’s team-high 24 points in a Game 2 loss were the most ever by a Canadian in the Finals.

The 29-year-old Olynyk had 17 points and seven rebounds and made two big plays down the stretch in Miami’s 115-104 win over the Lakers in Game 3.

Olynyk, whose team trailed 2-1 in the best-of-seven series heading into Game 4 on Tuesday night, said his fluctuating role is “never easy.”

“It’s a weird feeling and I’m not going to lie, it doesn’t get easy,” he said. “But you just know there is opportunity on the next side. The only thing is, you wonder if this is the last time there is that opportunity. So, you stay ready because hard work always prevails.”

Among Olynyk’s big plays in Game 3 were taking a charge against Anthony Davis that sent the Lakers’ big man to the bench with his third foul, and then chasing down LeBron James for a steal with just under three minutes to play.

“He’s always ready,” said former longtime Canadian national team coach Jay Triano. “Spoelstra is a pretty good coach … he is not afraid to mix it up. And Kelly causes problems. As good as Davis is inside, Kelly makes them have to go outside and guard the three, so Kelly poses some problems as well. And he’s been playing well.”

Olynyk shot 3-for-5 from three-point range in Game 3.

Komarniski made Olynyk his point guard when he joined the high school senior squad in Grade 10. He was six foot two at the time.

“But he had a skill set where I felt comfortable putting him in that position and a feeling that he could succeed at it,” said Komarniski. “He could shoot it, he could handle it. It was really an experiment to see how it was going to work out, and what I discovered was just cerebrally, he was advanced, even at Grade 10, he was very skilled at running our offence.”

And while he’d sprouted to 6-11 by Grade 12, Komarniski kept him at point guard. Other teams figured it must be a gimmick.

But Olynyk led the South Kamloops Titans to a 36-2 season to earn BC Basketball’s high school player of the year honours in Grade 12. One of their losses was in the provincial high school semifinals at the PNE Agrodome. Kamloops trailed St. George’s by 27 points before roaring back to force overtime, but Olynyk fouled out near the end of regulation.

“We went into overtime without him and didn’t fare well,” said Komarniski, whose team had to settle for third.

Komarniski, who still teaches at South Kamloops Secondary but retired from coaching after 30 years, remains close with Olynyk and his parents — mom Arlene, who was a longtime scorekeeper for the Toronto Raptors, and dad Ken, who was the head coach at the University of Toronto, then athletic director at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops. Komarniski helps Olynyk run his annual summer kids camp.

“I’ve talked to him a few times in the last week,” Olynyk said. “He’s always been in my corner. He’s been a huge influence on me as a player, helping me get to where I am, helping me get to Gonzaga first and then to the NBA. He’s a great basketball mind. He’s done a lot of great things for basketball in Kamloops and I’m glad to have him in my life.”

Olynyk has been a key player for Canada’s national team. He was in Canada’s camp for the World Cup in 2019 in China, but had to withdraw after injuring his knee in an exhibition game versus Nigeria.

“The national team has been huge for me in my development just playing against pros all the time,” Olynyk said. “And basically when you play for the national team, every game is a do-or-die game, a playoff game, when we’re in those tournaments, and that’s basically what we’re playing right now.”

Olynyk is one of just 10 Canadians to have played in the NBA Finals, but one of several to shine in this year’s playoffs. Oklahoma City guard Luguentz Dort of Montreal was excellent in guarding Houston star James Harden in the first round, while Jamal Murray of Kitchener, Ont., was a bonafide star for Denver through three thrilling rounds.

Triano said he talks a little trash with his Charlotte team when Canadians play well.

“So we’ve had a lot of fun in these playoffs with Jamal doing well, and now Kelly playing,” the Hornets assistant coach said. “I follow all the Canadian guys and have coached most of them, so huge sense of pride for sure. (Olynyk) is just such a good kid. It’s fun to see him do well, under the lights of the NBA Finals.

“It’s great for him to have that success, because he’s played so long and always represented Canada, and represents himself and his family so well. Can’t help but cheer for him.”

Komarniski said he’s most impressed with Olynyk’s determination.

“He’s undeterred. He has his critics, he’s had his obstacles to overcome, he’s persevered,” Komarniski said of the seven-year pro. “He’s grown within his identity and playing in the big league. He’s had awesome moments. I’m hoping he’s going to have some more awesome moments.

“I just see him as a guy that has basically willed himself into a quality NBA professional. And he’s always maintained a good outlook, a good attitude, a strong work ethic and a passion for the game.”

This was intended to be the year Canada had its NBA stars for Olympic qualifying, but the Tokyo Games were postponed due to COVID-19. Next season’s schedule has not been determined, but there’s a good chance it will conflict with qualifying, taking NBA players out of the equation.

Olynyk was already a question mark because of his contract status — he has a player option for next season with the Heat. When he has to decide remains unknown, with everything pushed back due to the pandemic.

But he has bigger things on his mind at the moment.

“I haven’t talked about it at all,” Olynyk said. “I’m here, just focused on trying to win this championship.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2020.

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