Celtics

Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart making each other better

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AP Photo

Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart making each other better

BOSTON -- If an NBA reporter who hadn’t been paying close attention to the Boston Celtics this season got dropped into the team’s locker room following Monday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets, they might have been flabbergasted by what they heard.

First, Marcus Smart stepped in front of the microphones and got peppered with questions about his 3-point shooting. Soon after, Kyrie Irving entered the scrum and playfully boasted about leading the team in charge takes.

Marcus the shooter? Kyrie the defender? What in the world was going on in Boston?

But it’s probably not a coincidence that these two players, thrust together in Boston’s starting lineup after the team stumbled out of the gates of the 2018-19 season, are so clearly infecting each other. Irving and Smart, often viewed as only possessing game-changing talent on only one end of the floor, have helped each other elevate their play on the opposite side.

Irving, after absorbing his ninth charge take of the season on Monday, is now tied with Smart for the team lead. All-Star point guards with crossover mix tapes aren’t typically the type of players to throw their body in front of oncoming defenders, but Irving sits tied for 10th in the NBA in total charge takes this year, routinely throwing himself in front of the likes of John Wall, James Harden, and Jimmy Butler.

After initially scoffing at the notion that Smart and big man Aron Baynes sat ahead of him in charge takes this season — “I’m past them. I’m past them this season. I lead the team in charges, no question,” Irving playfully boasted — Irving doubled down on his recent revelation that he crunches Smart highlight videos during his downtime. It turns out that Irving marvels at the way Smart puts himself in position to draw contact.

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“It’s well documented that I watch Marcus Smart highlights. Defensively, I literally just sit at home and watch him slide his feet and be able to beat guys to spots and take charges,” said Irving. "To be able to do that at 6-4 with a great build like that, I’m like, ‘Hey, I can do that, too.’

"I just try to beat guys to the spot as much as possible and just be in the right spots. [Smart is] always in the right spots, so why wouldn’t you want to watch a guy like that? And Baynes is always in the right spots so give credit to those guys’ instinct and their length and what they use to create defensive havoc.”

Irving has declared on multiple occasions this season that he desires to be a better defender. His uptick in effort is obvious to anyone watching, even beyond the charge takes. Irving’s name mingles with Smart in many of the hustle categories now tracked by the NBA, including being the team leader in loose balls recovered. Irving also sits second on the team behind Smart in deflections.

Smart’s relentless defensive intensity forces teammates to match his effort level. Irving may never be more than an average 1-on-1 defender, but he’s finding ways to utilize his speed and basketball IQ to help the Celtics. Coach Brad Stevens is also putting him in position to sneak away from shooters at times and create his own havoc by disrupting passing lanes.

"Whatever the game needs, I think I try to give,” said Irving. "Whatever impact I can make, offensively and defensively, I’m willing to do. So, anything to get us an extra possession or creating a great possession for my teammates, I’m willing to do. It’s just playing the game the right way. That’s all. Trying to do everything.”

On the other end of the floor, Smart’s sustained spike in 3-point shooting can be traced to Irving as well. Smart has said how the 3-point contests that he, Irving, and the team’s other shooters often engage in after practices have helped him improve his 3-point consistency this season. Maybe not surprisingly, Smart has also made noticeable strides as a facilitator, thriving in pick-and-roll situations and routinely creating good looks regardless of who’s on the floor. 

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Smart smiled when asked about asserting himself as a player capable of making a two-way impact.

"I remember watching some program and someone said I didn’t have the talent,” Smart told NBC Sports Boston. "I didn’t have the talent — kinda funny now hearing that. It it what it is. People are right to their opinion. But I know who I am as a player and I know what I can do.”

There’s a case to be made that Smart deserves some consideration when NBA coaches vote soon for All-Star reserves. While the Celtics have promoted Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum as their other top All-Star candidates behind Irving, Smart’s impact is hard to ignore.

The Celtics are 14-5 with Smart in the starting lineup this season and his energy has helped Boston find a bit more consistency after the seesaw start to the year. Irving was one of the first to gush about how Smart’s presence changed things for Boston’s starting group, both upping the energy but also freeing Irving up a bit on the offensive end.

Boston owns a net rating of plus-10.5 in the 609 minutes that Smart and Irving have shared the floor this season with solid efficiencies on both sides of the ball (114.3 offense, 103.8 defense). In the 355 minutes that neither player has been on the court, Boston owns a meager net rating of plus-0.4, and neither player performs quite as well without the other.

Irving and Smart seem to be bringing out the best in each other — and their teammates. Maybe more importantly, as two of the primary leaders of a still-young team, they are setting a quality example that players can still grow and develop their games.

And sometimes all that requires is effort and energy, something that seems to be infectious with this group.

“I think we feed off everybody’s energy,” said Smart, downplaying a suggestion that his intensity forces Irving and the others to elevate their play. "Everybody’s out there giving everything they got. As a competitor, you see that, you feel it. You don’t want to be the one left in the dust so you try to go out there and match that, or do better than that guy. We got everybody out there trying to complete, trying to show who can play the hardest. 

“When we play like that, and bring the best out of each other, it’s a tough team for any one to come in and beat us.”

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Semi Ojeleye's wall-rattling workouts have readied him for Giannis Antetokounmpo

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Semi Ojeleye's wall-rattling workouts have readied him for Giannis Antetokounmpo

BOSTON — Boom.

It sounded like a sledgehammer was hitting behind Al Horford's locker stall inside TD Garden and Boston’s veteran big man can feel the reverberations as he puts on his shoes. But Horford just smiles and shakes his head.

“I have a lot of faith in those concrete walls,” said Horford.

Boom.

These loud thuds became a familiar white noise in the Celtics locker room after games this season. But, by late April, it felt like the noise was getting louder. Marcus Morris’ stall is a safe distance from the epicenter but even he couldn't help but notice the decibel level. 

“Shem, god damn,” said Morris. 

Boom.

Further across the room, Terry Rozier heard the noise but always figured it was just part of the perpetual construction happening around the Garden. Gordon Hayward, who is as far from the pounding as possible, was more aware of what was happening in the adjoining weight room. 

"That dude is a machine, man,” said Hayward.

Boom.

Eventually, the rhythmic pounding subsided. Then it started up again. It was audible as Celtics players answered questions about that night’s game. A media relations staffer would sometimes stand near the door between the locker room and weight room, aiming to muffle the noise by pulling the door closed whenever players and coaches passed through.

Boom.

Finally, after the locker room had all but cleared out, the door swung open and a sweat-covered Semi Ojeleye, still in his game shorts and tank top with headphones over his head, emerged.

Those booms were a medicine ball that Ojeleye had repeatedly launched into a wall as part of a CrossFit-like routine that Celtics rehab and performance coordinator Zach Markowitz had designed for Ojeleye on nights he doesn’t get into game action.

It used to be that Ojeleye would only engage in these postgame workouts on the road, yearning for some way to burn off pent up energy and avoid the drudgery of sitting in a hotel room. But as the “Did Not Play — Coach’s Decisions” piled up on a Boston roster loaded with talent this season, Ojeleye decided to add a postgame workout to the mix before departing TD Garden.

"Zach just kinda puts this stuff together. It’s kinda like some CrossFit-type stuff, so we do some rotations with med balls and kettlebell swings and bike work,” said Ojeleye. "It’s a lot of different stuff but trying to get some dynamic work in because you’re not getting that game action.”

Jaylen Brown hears the nightly thumping and finds himself concerned only by the force he figures is needed to make the locker room shake the way it does when Ojeleye starts his medicine-ball routine.

“I don’t know what his deal is, why he’s so angry,” Brown said while trying to muffle a sly smile. “I get it, he’s probably like, ‘Man, f— it, I wanted to be out there [in the game].’ He’s just throwing that medicine ball and he’s probably got a picture of Brad Stevens next to him.”

At this point, Brown starts laughing and repeatedly declares he’s just kidding. No, he marvels at the way Ojeleye has handled his situation.

"Semi is a true professional. And nothing short of it,” said Brown. "He handles every situation the right way. When he gets in and when he jacks himself up, he’s ready, mentally engaged. He is a true professional. I’ve learned a lot from Semi, you know what I mean? And I’ve been in the league longer than him and I’ve learned from Semi, just waiting on his situation, his level-headedness, his matureness, his work. He’s a great asset to this team and the organization.”

READY AND ABLE

No one who’s ever gotten a glimpse of what Celtics Twitter dubbed Ojeleye's “thick, jacked frame” has ever doubted his dedication to the weight room. But his relentless desire to stay ready despite never knowing when his next opportunity will come has endeared Ojeleye to just about everyone in the organization.

“He’s definitely the hardest working guy on this team,” said Hayward, who often shoots before and after practice with Ojeleye and is no stranger to his weight room exploits.

Echoed Horford: “That’s the kind of guy you want on your team. If I could have Semi Ojeleye on my team for 15 years, I’d be very happy, just because he’s so professional and he works extremely hard.”

Ojeleye logged a mere 594 minutes in 56 appearances this season. That’s nearly half of his total floor time from his rookie season, when injuries increased his opportunities.

Ojeleye played a mere 28 seconds in Boston’s first-round series against the Indiana Pacers. But that’s about to change. Celtics coach Brad Stevens has routinely called on Ojeleye in matchups against the Milwaukee Bucks, tasking the brick-wall big man with the impossible task of making potential league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo work for his points. And Stevens has full confidence in Ojeleye in that situation.

"Semi’s always the most reliable guy ever,” said Stevens. "You just know exactly what you’re getting every day with his work ethic.”

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Jesusemilore Talodabijesu Ojeleye’s page on Basketball Reference lists six nicknames, starting with the familiar Semi (pronounced Shemmy), then adding, Muscles Jesus, The Ox, Thor, The Ojeleye Factory, The Man Made of Granite. Needless to say, the 24-year-old wing is well regarded for his muscular frame. Teammates tell tall tales of his workouts while assistant coaches lament the amount of time they’ve spent just trying to find him a gym on the road.

But in a league where young players with DNPs are often the first to sneak out the door and into the night, Ojeleye’s dedication to putting in postgame work is the reason all of his teammates think he’s going to eventually be a star in this league.

"I think it’s the hardest thing in sports to do, to mentally try to maintain some sort of focus and discipline and still be a professional, not knowing if you are going to get 2 minutes, 5 minutes, no minutes, 15 minutes,” said Hayward. "I think for most guys, you kinda know when you’re going to go in the game, how many minutes you’re going to get. Sometimes, in some systems, you know the shots that you’re going to get each game, different things like that and you can really prepare. 

"But in [Ojeleye’s] situation, you just don’t know. And that’s tough. Like I said, it’s very impressive, the professionalism he has at such a young age.”

There’s a line of thought that, if the Celtics weren't so well stocked at the wing position, with an ability to mix and match with the likes of Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Marcus Morris, that Ojeleye would be a more consistent contributor. He almost certainly will be a rotation player in future seasons. But the fact that he doesn’t sweat his current uncertainty and simply stays ready for the next opportunity is why teammates gush about him and revel when he does get into games.

"As much as he would want to play more, I’m sure, he understands his role and he’s always prepared,” said Horford. "That’s difficult to do. It’s always nice to see him be rewarded with getting to play.”

For his part, Ojeleye admits it can be tough playing the waiting game, but he’s unfailingly positive about his situation.

"I just try to reframe that as it’s a blessing to be here,” said Ojeleye, who is more likely to post scripture to his Instagram story than any of the blinged-out rock star-like photos that young NBA players tend to spotlight. "There are some days when it’s tough, you’re like, ‘Man, I wish I could get my rhythm and know when it was going to happen.’ At the same time I think you have faith that it’s going to happen, then you do what you can by putting in the work and that kinda makes it easier, it helps me focus on the positives.”

KEEPING IT 100

Ojeleye laughs when asked to put a number on the total number of medicine ball throws in a typical postgame session. “Let’s say 100,” he offered. Reporters like to joke that he must be working out with a vision of defending Antetokounmpo in mind, but Ojeleye chuckles at that suggestion as well. 

“I’m just listening to music and really it’s -- I feel like, during the game, I didn’t get that work in. I didn’t help my team. So I’m trying to catch back up. Just trying to prepare for the next opportunity.” 

This summer, as part of TD Garden’s ongoing renovations, the Celtics' tiny outdated locker room is scheduled to expand. That will include a relocation of the team’s weight room. So it won’t be an issue if, as some teammates expect, Ojeleye ends up launching a medicine ball straight through the dividing wall this season.

Teammates very much enjoy those booms that echo through the locker room.

"The beast, he’s preparing,” said Horford. "He’s waiting to be unleashed.”

And Horford isn’t tipping the game plan when he notes that the unleashing is upon us. The Celtics have enough talent now that it would seem more likely that Hayward or Morris would elevate to a starting role in Boston’s small-ball lineups but it’s fair to expect a heavy dose of Ojeleye and Aron Baynes as the primary big-man defenders off the bench.

“I think this series, [Ojeleye will] probably get an opportunity here,” said Horford. "His ability to space the floor and make an open shot, but then also to defend. And he defends Giannis, and defends at a high level -- he’s a great weapon that we have.”

THE BUCK STOPS HERE?

One of the more common Ojeleye nicknames that you won’t find on Basketball Reference is the “Giannis Stopper.” It’s slightly exaggerated because, well, no one has figured out how to stop Antetokounmpo, particularly during this 2018-19 campaign when he’s made an emphatic case as the best two-way player in the NBA.

And, yet, it’s undeniable that Stevens deployed Ojeleye in a starting role in Games 5-7 of last year’s playoff series against the Bucks. He trusts Ojeleye to make things difficult, though player and coach would be among the first scoff at the suggestion of any sort of “Giannis Stopper.” Heck, “Giannis Slower” might be too much.

The Celtics have typically fared well when Ojeleye is on the court with Antetokounmpo.

The pair logged 41 minutes together on the court during the Celtics-Bucks regular-season matchups this year. Antetokounmpo’s net rating with Ojeleye on the floor was minus-4.5, then spiked to plus-7.4 in the 66 minutes he played without Ojeleye on the court. Now, that’s a bit misleading because the Bucks had an offensive rating of 108 in the minutes Ojeleye was on the court and that actually plummeted to 97.1 without him, so the variance was more on the defensive end.

The luxury for the Celtics is simply being able to deploy another stout body capable of taking some of the wear off Horford. Even if Antetokounmpo scores, Ojeleye can make him work, offer resistance near the basket, and give you another batch of fouls to keep Boston’s top rotation guys on the floor in key spots.

These are the moments that all those medicine ball tosses were building towards. And you can bet Ojeleye will be ready.

After talking one off day at the Celtics practice facility, he promptly disappeared into the weight room. Soon after, the walls to the adjoining media relations office started rattling. 

Boom.

Everybody nearby had the same response to the rhythmic thuds. There goes Semi again.

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Nuggets' Will Barton raves about Isaiah Thomas' playoff mindset

Nuggets' Will Barton raves about Isaiah Thomas' playoff mindset

Isaiah Thomas' days of NBA playoff heroism are well behind him. But the veteran guard is still finding a way contribute, even if it's not on the court.

Thomas hasn't played a single minute in the Denver Nuggets' first-round series with the San Antonio Spurs. After Denver's Game 5 win Tuesday night. though, Nuggets guard Will Barton took considerable time out of his media session to discuss how Thomas has inspired the team.

Barton's struggles early in the series earned him a demotion to the second unit. But it's safe to say Thomas has it worse than Barton. At this time three years ago, the former All-Star was enjoying an incredible postseason run with the Boston Celtics. Two hip surgeries later, Thomas isn't even sniffing the court for the Nuggets.

Despite the brutal turn of events, though, Thomas is maintaining a positive outlook. Per The Athletic's Joe Vardon, the 30-year-old guard still goes through the exact same pregame shooting routine he did with the Celtics and even challenged a group of Spurs assistant coaches to a pickup game before Game 4.

"He’s an inspiration to me," Barton told Vardon. " ... He still cheers for us, he still works out every day and goes hard, so like I said, he’s motivation."

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