Celtics

Stevens believes Ojeleye has chance to be one of 'better defenders around'

Stevens believes Ojeleye has chance to be one of 'better defenders around'

BOSTON – Kyrie Irving was having yet another big night scoring the ball. Al Horford was in double-double mode again. Jaylen Brown had rediscovered his shooting touch. Ditto for Terry Rozier, at least at the start of the fourth quarter.

And yet when you talked with Celtics players following Boston’s 108-94 win over San Antonio on Monday night, one of the first names to come up was Semi Ojeleye.

Yes, the second-round pick from SMU selected by the Celtics in last June’s NBA draft has been delivering some first-rate defense in limited doses.

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The 6-foot-7 forward first caught the attention of Celtics fans when his man-to-man defense against Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo was on display and proved to be critical to Boston’s road win over the Bucks last week.

And on Monday, Ojeleye was at it again defensively, holding his own against another elite scorer, Rudy Gay.

“I think Semi has a chance to be one of the better defenders around,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.

Ojeleye was flattered when told about Stevens’ comments about his defense.

“Those are big shoes to fill,” he said. “With the defenders we have on this team, like (Marcus) Smart already. You want to be like those guys; just try to follow their lead.”

What makes Ojeleye such an unusual talent defensively is his combination of strength, leaping ability and lateral quickness – the kind of defensive trifecta that will continue leading to opportunities to play even in limited minutes.

For Ojeleye, his play defensively has been impressive. But the process to be an impact defender, begins well before Stevens calls his number to enter games.

“I just try to watch film,” Ojeleye said. “Try to prepare. These are great guys. I’m not going to stop every play. You do what you can.”

And that is why he has become a player that Stevens has not shown any hesitation in turning to when he needs a defender who can hold his own in man-to-man coverage, but is agile enough to not get burned in case he has to switch out on another player.

You can count Al Horford among the Celtics players who are big fans of Ojeleye’s defense.

“He really moves his feet really well,” Horford said. “He has a good sense defensively.”

And if Ojeleye's perimeter-shooting game comes along, who knows where that defensive talent combined with a more reliable jumper will take him.

He has struggled with his shot most of this season (he came into Monday's game shooting 14.3 percent from the field, 16.7 percent from 3-point range), but came up with some big shots in the second half and finished with seven points and four rebounds on 2-for-5 shooting.

“It was great to see it go through,” Ojeleye said of his long 3-point make out of four attempts. “I’m thankful. I praise God for that, to be honest.”

Knowing how much his defense has meant to the Celtics already, his teammates were naturally ecstatic for him when he finally got a shot to go down on Monday.

“I feel like that (3-pointer) kind of officially opened the game up,” Horford said.

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

After arriving in Boston and spending some time with his new teammates, Kyrie Irving felt good about this group doing big things this season. 

But when asked about the experience thus far being what he thought it would be, Irving responded, “It’s probably exceeded that.”

He’s not alone. 

Few would have envisioned the Celtics (15-2) would have the best record in the NBA at this point, let alone be riding a 15-game winning streak which ranks as the fifth-best winning streak in franchise history. 

Irving and his Celtics teammates will try and keep it going tonight when they take on the Dallas Mavericks.

Irving’s ability to mesh with his teammates and still find success was among the many questions out there when the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off the blockbuster trade this offseason. 

Blending in has not been an issue for Irving, bolstered by the reality that his game stands out. 

We saw that in Boston’s 110-99 win over the Atlanta Hawks, which was a game in which Irving had 30 points on an insanely efficient 10-for-12 shooting night. 

There were many factors that went into Irving’s strong night against the Hawks, but he said it really came down to one thing above all else.

“I just made some damn shots for once,” Irving quipped. “That right there kind of made it seem better than I actually been shooting over the start of the season.  It would also contribute to being able to be in the right spots and guys being selfless in their approach driving to the basket or getting into the paint. It’s tell-tale sign of all of us getting more comfortable.”

Here are five below-the-radar story lines to keep an eye on as the Boston Celtics face the Dallas Mavericks, with Boston gunning for its 16th straight win. 

BROWN’S POSITIVE PLAY

Jaylen Brown has been on a bit of an offensive tear of late, the last being a career-high 27-point performance in Boston’s win over Atlanta. But even more telling is how well things seem to flow with him on the floor. Brown’s plus/minus this season is +146 which is tops among all players in the Eastern Conference. His closest competition in the East? That would teammate Al Horford whose plus/minus this season is +143. In addition, Horford has had a positive plus/minus in every game this season. 

YOGI FERRELL

You can count Yogi Ferrell among the ones that got away from Brad Stevens when he was coaching at Butler. Ferrell, who played at Indiana, was a player on Stevens’ radar when he was coaching at Butler. “I recruited Yogi, unsuccessfully,” Stevens told reporters in Dallas. While Ferrell came on strong as an undrafted free agent with the Mavericks last season, Stevens said there’s nothing about Ferrell’s game now that he didn’t see when he tried to woo him to Butler. “He would have been awfully good at Butler,” Stevens said.

HOMECOMING

While Marcus Smart grew up in Flower Mound, Texas (less than an hour from Dallas), tonight’s game is a homecoming of sorts for another Celtics player – Semi Ojeleye. The 6-foot-7 forward played at SMU which is located in Dallas. A second-round pick by Boston in last June’s NBA draft, Ojeleye has been among the many surprise performers for the Celtics this season. “We knew he could be a versatile defender,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Probably has exceeded our expectations in that regard with his ability to guard one (point guard) through five (center) at certain times. And he’s been pretty consistent shooting the ball. Right now, embracing that kind of 3-and-D role is what he has to do and he’s done it well.”

DEEP DRAFT CLASS

The Boston Celtics struck gold by drafting Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick. But as you look at the teams that had lottery picks in last June’s NBA draft, few come away feeling disappointed or discouraged by the player selected. The Dallas Mavericks are among the teams pleased with their first-round pick, Dennis Smith Jr. who was selected with the ninth overall pick. He has emerged as one of the top rookies this year, averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. And yes, he was a player that was on the Celtics’ radar leading up to last June’s draft. “We had Dennis in and he was really impressive,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “He’s a guy that’s going to have a great career and he’s got good veteran players around him to help kick it off.”

DIRK NOWITZKI

The numbers aren’t anywhere close to what we’ve seen for the bulk of Dirk Nowitzki’s illustrious career that’s now in Year 20. But there is a demeanor about him that seems to be at peace with where he’s at basketball-wise, even if the wins aren’t nearly as plentiful as he’s accustomed to. “I appreciate his game a ton,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Just watching him talk on the court, cheer on the bench, sit at the scorer’s table with a smile on his face. You can’t play this long and be this good this long if you don’t’ love it. Everybody says they love it, but he’s got a different level of passion. You can feel it, you can see it. You root for guys like him to have success.”

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Mavericks in Dallas. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's need to play Smart in Dallas

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[SHOP: Gear up, Celtics fans!]

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