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.