Celtics' Semi Ojeleye the latest 'Next Man Up' success story

Celtics' Semi Ojeleye the latest 'Next Man Up' success story

BOSTON – You never know when your number is going to be called.

It’s the kind of coach-speak that players hear all the time, on all levels of play.

But when it comes to the Boston Celtics, it’s a way of life that is deeply woven into who they are as an organization.

That’s why the emergence of a bench player into a role of prominence, barely raises an eyebrow anymore.

But make no mistake about it.

Performances like the one put on Thursday night by Semi Ojeleye are not taken for granted.

When called upon to play a larger role due to Jaylen Brown (right foot) not being able to play, Ojeleye rose to the occasion and delivered one of his best scoring nights as a Celtic in helping Boston hold on for a 117-113 win over the Bucks and in doing so, became Boston's latest 'Next man up' success story.


Never mind the fact that he scored a season-high 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting, and that it was only the third time in his 96-game playing career (that includes the playoffs) that he reached double figures scoring.

Ojeleye more than anything else, was a presence; the kind of presence that speaks to Boston’s depth which the Celtics have maintained will have to be a dominant theme for their club to have the kind of success this season they believe they are capable of.

Of course, Ojeleye’s primary reason for being in the starting lineup in place of Brown, was because of his defense which has matched up well against Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo had a game-high 33 points, but only nine of those points came when he was guarded by Ojeleye who defended him on 24 possessions – more than any other Celtics player.

“Giannis is a tough cover,” said Ojeleye who added, “It was a joint effort to try and (contain) him.”

And while not having Brown available certainly didn’t help Boston’s chances, the Celtics can breathe a little easier knowing they have a player like Ojeleye who can fill in at the last minute and not be overwhelmed by the opportunity to start against one of the league's most dynamic scoring threats in Antetokounmpo. 


We saw glimpses of that during his rookie season a year ago.

In fact, it was an early regular season win over the Bucks that seemed to open the eyes of many to the defensive potential of the 6-foot-6 Ojeleye.

Similar to last night’s game, Boston found itself in a back-and-fourth tussle with the Bucks while Antetokounmpo doing some amazing things.

Ojeleye defended him for a few stretches early on, as well as lengthier stint down the stretch. In the fourth quarter of that game, Antetokounmpo missed three of the four field goal attempts he took when guarded by Ojeleye.

That success led to more opportunities down the road which included his first career starts coming in the playoffs against the Bucks.

Coach Brad Stevens has shown no hesitation, whether it’s in the regular season or playoffs, to turn to Ojeleye.  

“I think everybody here knows what I think about Semi,” said Stevens who added, “and you know, whether he starts or doesn’t play, he’s the first guy in the gym the next day working, and he’s a really, really good teammate. And he was ready to be called upon again, which is, I think, is one of the hardest things to do when you’re a guy who’s playing sporadically.”

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Celtics players' theories on why they play up - and down - to their competition

Celtics players' theories on why they play up - and down - to their competition

BOSTON -- The idea that the Boston Celtics are at their best against the best teams is real.

So anyone who has followed this team this season wasn’t the least bit shocked that their three-game losing streak ended on Wednesday night with a 117-108 win over the Toronto Raptors who have been at the top of the Eastern Conference standings most of this season.

Boston (26-18) has now taken two of the three head-to-head games against the Raptors (33-13) which speaks volumes about how they have fared against the top teams in the East - Toronto, Milwaukee, Indiana and Philadelphia.

Against those four teams, Boston has a combined 6-3 record which is the best combined record of any of the four aforementioned teams against one another.

So what gives?

Why are the Celtics so much better against the Toronto, Philadelphia and Milwaukee’s of the world, but get drubbed against the Brooklyn, Orlando and Miami’s of the NBA?

“We have to play all those teams that aren’t the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks and the Philly 76ers, we have to play those teams like they are,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston. “That only helps us, keeps us in a rhythm, a great rhythm and it holds us accountable for doing the right things.”

Terry Rozier added, “We just have to do a better job of beating the teams that are not so good … we gotta be locked in every game. We have to play with that intensity.”

Celtics guard Kyrie Irving has a theory, too.

“It just comes with our maturity as a team,” Irving said. “I did a poor job of setting an example for these young guys of what it’s like to get something out of your teammates. You go and say something publicly and it ends up being received in so many different ways. You never know how fragile or what guys are going through if you say things like that. You’re expecting results but at the same time I should have kept it in-house. Going forward, I want ... to get the best out of them but I won’t do it publicly like that.”

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Call to LeBron James proves Kyrie Irving's focus is on winning

Call to LeBron James proves Kyrie Irving's focus is on winning

BOSTON — Kyrie Irving wants to win. Badly.

That’s the big takeaway after his jaw-dropping revelation Wednesday night that, in the aftermath of his pointed comments toward Boston’s younger players after Saturday’s loss in Orlando, Irving phoned former teammate LeBron James for guidance on how to be a better leader to a young team with championship aspirations.

Consider how difficult it must be for a player of Irving’s magnitude to essentially swallow a bit of his pride and make a call in which he had to admit that, not only did he not handle his situation well when he was a younger player, but also acknowledge that he was essentially becoming everything he resented now that roles have been reversed all these years later.

With the benefit of time, Irving now understands why James was so demanding. Irving understands that he was too singularly focused on individual accomplishments and didn’t always recognize the need to sacrifice himself so the team could achieve its championship goals. He understands that, in order for his current team to get to the championship stage the Cavaliers eventually reached, he had to figure out how James got the younger players in Cleveland to embrace what he was preaching.

Irving is admitting fault in hopes his young teammates can learn from his experiences.

In making that call, Irving proved more definitively than ever that winning is all the matters to him now. It shows he understands that part of his legacy will be determined by if he can get the most out of the players alongside him in Boston and deliver them to a championship stage.

“[James] has a legacy he wants to leave, and he has a window he wants to capture,” said Irving. "So I think what that brought me back was like, ‘Alright, how do I get the best out of this group to the success they had last year and then helping them realize what it takes to win a championship?’”

Irving didn’t have to detail his call to James. Back in December, during a road trip to D.C., Irving revealed how he sought advice on growing as a leader but, pressed on who exactly he phoned, he suggested he would never tell reporters.

In revealing his call to James, Irving laid himself bare a bit. All at the cost of winning.

By simply referencing James, Irving left reporters salivating for more details. When about 15 reporters shouted follow-up questions after his revelation, Irving smiled and fired back, “Aww, relax. Relax. Relax. We’re good. Relax, OK? One question at a time because when you bring up Bron, of course it brings extra questions.”

He didn’t want to offer much more specifics about the call but he was willing to admit that, in the firestorm created by his comments Saturday, he recognized that he hadn’t handled things right. But the call reaffirmed what he needed to do to get everyone on the same page.

“It gave me a peace of mind to go about what I’ve gotta go do,” said Irving.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has acknowledged recently how his team hasn’t always handled adversity well this season. These 2018-19 Celtics haven’t always shown an ability to turn a negative into a positive.

But maybe that changed Wednesday night.

The Celtics show remarkable resolve in a showdown with the conference-leading Toronto Raptors, first clawing their way out of an early double-digit deficit then fighting as Toronto tried to pull away late. Irving, of course, was spectacular with 27 points and a career-high 18 assists, unwilling to let this game get away from the Celtics.

Irving’s comments after the game might have been even more important, though. Irving acknowledged that Jaylen Brown was right when, after Monday’s loss in Brooklyn, Brown essentially said the team cannot point fingers at each other.

Irving promised to push the younger players but to do so more frequently behind closed doors. He stressed that his words were never meant to hurt his younger teammates, but instead push them to be as good as they can be.

That’s the sort of leadership that younger players should be able to get behind. In taking culpability, Irving made it OK for the rest of the Celtics to admit they haven’t always handled their situations as well as they could.

Maybe this will help fix any fractures that were created by public criticism. Though, more than likely, winning will do that. What’s obvious is that Irving just wants to win and get the most out of his teammates. He hasn’t always approached that the best way but he’s showing that he’s willing to do whatever it takes to become a better leader.

It’s going to take more than a phone call to fix things. But it’s a step. Like a team meeting, it can be a positive, but it’s only another step in getting everyone on this roster on the same page.

But it might be the biggest step yet and one that might have prevented this team from skidding further off the rails. Irving’s call shows he’s growing as a leader and determined to help this team reach its lofty goals.

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