It was quite the scene at the Olynyk house on Monday night. For the first time in the history of Kamloops, B.C., a local son was playing a Game 7 in the NBA playoffs.
Predictably it wasn’t hard for Ken Olynyk and his wife Arlene to gather a crowd in front of the big screen to watch the Celtics host the Washington Wizards in the deciding game of their second-round series.
But it would have been hard to predict what happened next: Not just a Celtics win in what had been a tightly contested series with all kinds of momentum shifts, but a victory earned in large measure due to the efforts of their son Kelly, coming off the bench for Boston and delivering one of the greatest Game 7 performances by a non-starter in NBA history.
“We got to cheer and high-five and there was lots of excitement obviously for the Celtics and obviously for Kelly as everyone there was very close with him,” said Ken, a former national team player and coach and now the athletics director at Thompson Rivers University. “So whenever he did anything we thought was positive, whether it was make a pass or set a screen or rebound the ball or making some shots, it got pretty loud.”
Understandably. The Celtics big man is a large presence in Canadian basketball as one of the small (although growing) handful of players to have been taken in the first round of the NBA draft – 13th overall out of Gonzaga in 2014.
But in NBA circles he’s a role player – valued on his team but hardly the type of character to be front-and-centre on a national broadcast or to be the topic of discussion for the likes of Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal on a post-game show. He may be best known for his long hair – occasionally worn in a bun – and hit-and-miss attempt at a beard.
But drop 26 points, grab five rebounds and hand out four assists in 28 minutes of a Game 7 on the parquet floor while wearing Celtics green and white? That will get you noticed. Score 14 points in the fourth quarter on 5-of-6 shooting?
That will make you a star for a night, or – as Celtics catalyst Isaiah Thomas said after the game: “Kelly was the MVP.”
With the Celtics set to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals beginning Wednesday night, Olynyk could well be at the centre of attention again. The Celtics, even as the No. 1 seed, are underdogs against James and the Cavs and will need significant performances from unexpected sources if they’re going to push the defending NBA champions.
Olynyk has proven he can do it under the most pressing circumstances imaginable. After his Game 7 heroics, one Boston media outlet speculated if it was the most ‘clutch’ performance by a reserve in the history of Boston sports. Heady stuff.
For the elder Olynyk it’s been a strange experience. He’s accustomed to his son earning his fair share of attention – he was the MVP of B.C.’s prestigious provincial championship tournament, playing for South Kamloops High, the first player to simultaneously lead the field in scoring (36.5 a game), rebounding (15.5) and assists (7.2) and in 2009 and went on to become a first-team All-American at Gonzaga leading to him being drafted by the Dallas Mavericks before being flipped to Boston.
But to have your flesh-and-blood dominating the news cycle and have Sir Charles ruminating about the haircut he’d like to give your son? That’s something different.
“It is very strange,” says Ken. “One of the coaches who coaches for me at Thompson Rivers University said you know you’ve made it when Charles Barkley is talking about cutting your hair. There is an expectation that professional athletes are in the news but it is weird and strange when it’s your son.”
It’s been a wild two weeks in that respect. The younger Olynyk was front-and-centre earlier in the series after he got into an altercation with the Wizards’ Kelly Oubre in a heated Game 3 that peaked when Olynyk put Oubre on the floor with a hard screen set on behalf of Thomas and then found himself on his back after Oubre got up and charged at him, putting a forearm in his chest. Oubre was ejected and suspended for Game 4 while Olynyk was called for a common foul and wasn’t otherwise disciplined.
The discussion between Games 4 and 5 was whether Olynyk was a dirty player or not – Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green, himself no angel, suggested Olynyk had crossed a line: “He’s dirty, a dirty player,” Green said on Uninterrupted’s “Dray Day” podcast. “I don’t respect guys like that. I know he’s not the greatest basketball player of all time, so maybe he feels like he’s got to do that, but you don’t have to do that. Just dirty. I don’t respect that, man. He’s dirty.”
Green has been called dirty himself more than once and has been ejected three times in his career while gathering 47 technical fouls and six flagrants. His suspension from Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals for appearing to punch LeBron James in the groin was the turning point of the series as the Cavaliers fought back from a 3-1 deficit, sparked by Green’s temporary ban. In contrast, Olynyk has earned just three technicals in his career and has never been ejected or assessed a flagrant foul, but this time of the year doesn’t offer much opportunity for nuanced discussion.
“It’s unfortunate,” says his dad. “I think [Kelly] plays hard. I was at [Game 3] and of course I watched it over and over and it was questionable whether it was an offensive foul on Kelly, a screening foul. I think things were building up because Oubre was in the game, guarding Isaiah and if you’re guarding Isaiah you’re going to get screened and Kelly was setting forceful screens and that’s probably one of the reasons Isaiah likes playing with Kelly because Kelly sets forceful screens, which opens him up.
“…It was just an unfortunate situation, there was no intent to injure or hit anyone in the head. He didn’t get a flagrant foul in any of the games, there weren’t any ejections, there wasn’t even a technical foul. So I felt he handled it really well and maybe he used it a little bit internally as motivation.”
With the Celtics hosting the Cavs there’s a high probability Olynyk will be in the news again.
Prior to his showing in Game 7 or his dust-up with Oubre, the last time Olynyk was making news came when the Celtics and Cavs met in the first round of the 2015 playoffs. It was an unremarkable four-game sweep by the Cavs except that in the final moments of Game 4, Olynyk got tied up while pursuing a rebound against Cleveland’s Kevin Love. A yank by Olynyk on Love’s arm pulled the Cleveland forward’s shoulder out of its socket, requiring surgery, ending Love’s season and quite likely ruining the Cavs’ title chances that year.
That was the beginning of Olynyk’s reputation as a player who pushes the boundaries, although Love later said that he held no ill will towards the Celtics forward.
That likely won’t matter much as the storylines get pumped up and black and white hats distributed.
At the Olynyk house they know what’s coming, even if it they haven’t quite gotten used to it.
“Get ready for another onslaught,” said Ken.
There are worse problems to have.