Miami Heat

In a league where speed, athleticism kill, this Heat player wins at his own pace

Miami Heat forward Kelly Olynyk guards Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton under the basket in the fourth quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, March 19, 2018.
Miami Heat forward Kelly Olynyk guards Denver Nuggets forward Will Barton under the basket in the fourth quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, March 19, 2018. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

If it looks to you like Kelly Olynyk does some of his best work in slow motion, know this: he’s doing it on purpose.

“If you just slow down and read the game you’ll get more out of it,” Olynyk said after his latest 22-point masterpiece off the Heat’s bench Wednesday night against the Knicks that featured a bounce pass between the legs of Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn to Josh Richardson for a dunk, a series of fake dribble hand-offs by Olynyk that led to easy layups, and Olynyk’s slow-moving shot fake and up-and-under moves that led to an 8-for-11 shooting night.

“Russell Westbrook, John Wall, I could be any of them if I wanted to.”

Olynyk, 26, was clearly joking (we think) about that last part. But when it comes to mastering how to play slow — or slower than the competition — the Canadian-born 7-footer is dead serious. It’s something he’s learned how to do more of while trying to make up for his lack of foot speed and athleticism, and its made him more and more effective throughout his career.

This season, Olynyk is not only ninth in win shares (4.7) among NBA sixth-man candidates (players who have started half or less of their games played), but he’s averaging career highs in points (11.4), rebounds (5.6), assists (2.7), minutes (23.7) and leading the Heat in plus/minus (plus-228). The Heat hasn’t had a player with a plus/minus rating that high since Chris Bosh finished the 2013-14 season plus-446.

“The first couple years I was kind of like going too fast, fumbling everywhere, trying to make too much happen,” Olynyk said. “If you slow down, the game will slow down and the game will tell you what to do. That’s the most important thing and people don’t really understand that until you have a few years in. But the game will tell you what to do whether it’s shoot, pass or dribble.

“[When you use fakes or misdirection] you can’t do it too fast. It’s kind of like you have to do it slow enough where they bite on fakes and they think you’re doing something else. You’ve got to give them a chance to react. It’s like people with a really fast crossover. What’s the point? The defense hasn’t even had a chance to move yet. You’ve got to play at your own pace and move the defense with that.”

HEAT0322 KELLY2 CTJ(1)
Miami Heat forward Kelly Olynyk leaps for a basket as New York Knicks forward Isaiah Hicks fails to defend in the second quarter at the AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami, Florida, March 21, 2018. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Olynyk’s unorthodox play was criticized by Nuggets coach Mark Malone on Monday who claimed Olynyk “traveled all over the place” in his 30-point, eight-rebound, six-assist, four-block performance against Denver. He says he has been getting it for years.

Of his 128 turnovers this season (third-most on the team), Olynyk has been called for traveling 13 times.

“People always say I travel, but I don’t know,” Olynyk said. “They don’t call a lot of travels in the NBA. There’s been a lot of times I’ve been called for a travel and I go back and look and it isn’t a travel. So, it evens out.”

Said Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek: “[Olynyk] has all the little tricks where he can pitch it early and lean into you so you are forced to run a little bit different. He’s just a really smart player...”

The Heat (39-33), which has picked up its pace and offensive production since the All-Star break, has leaned on Olynyk for offense more than most expected after he signed a surprising four-year, $50 million deal with Miami last summer.

After losing more than 16 pounds in the off season and trimming his body fat, Olynyk has grown into a role similar to the one Bosh had years ago, playing the pick-and-pop game and creating open driving lanes and offensive opportunities for his teammates in the process. There have been stretches when Spoelstra has played Olynyk 15 or 16 consecutive minutes because he and his teammates have been on a roll.

“CB is the All-Star version,” Justise Winslow said of the comparison of Olynyk and Bosh. “Most people would say KO is not quick laterally or he can’t really move, but he uses it to his advantage. It’s different. I’ve never really seen it. [Spurs point guard] Kyle Anderson maybe, but that’s a different position. For a big like that, the way he can shoot the ball is extremely hard [to defend]. His shot fake looks exactly like his shot. Then when he does shot fake and you go down, he gets in that gap, plays with pace and reads the defense and things just open up for him.”

Said rookie Bam Adebayo, the Heat’s best one-on-one defender of Olynyk: “A guy like that, his IQ beats you. For me as a rookie, I don’t know, people say its an unwritten stat, if you’re under 25, you’re going to jump for pump fakes. I’ve seen a lot of guys do it. You’ve got to have a high IQ playing against KO because you never know what he’s going to do because he plays so slow. You cut him off, then he spins and up-fakes and you fly by him. So you say ‘I’m going to block the next one.’ Then he up-fakes and gets you again. It’s hard because you’ve got to pick and choose.”

With 10 regular-season games remaining, Olynyk is on pace to earn a $1 million bonus in the coming weeks. He has played 1,565 minutes, and once he passes 1,700 minutes his salary will increase from $10.6 million to $11.6 million for this season.

It’s hard to argue Olynyk hasn’t been worth every penny.

“There’s a lot of things that the defense has to negotiate through when he’s on the court and he’s playing at a high level,” Spoelstra said. “And that’s where he has been building and trending to.”

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