Celtics

Kyrie Irving's response was better than the Boston Celtics' performance

Kyrie Irving's response was better than the Boston Celtics' performance

The Boston Celtics submitted another entry into their surprisingly crowded field for “worst loss of the season” on Saturday night with a double-digit defeat at the hands of a Chicago Bulls team that Boston waxed by 56 points during their last visit here earlier this season. As Kyrie Irving took his place in front of the cameras following Saturday’s head-shaking loss, he was asked where he might slot this particular mess.

“Behind me,” said Irving.

Over the course of a three-minute huddle with reporters in Chicago, Irving offered short, swagger-filled responses in which he acknowledged Boston’s woes but suggested that all will be fine by the time the playoffs arrive. Given his propensity to sometimes pour gasoline on top of combustible losses this season, this might just have been Irving’s best postgame media session of the year.

Irving’s leadership has been under the microscope and he’s admitted missteps. It felt like Saturday’s loss could have been a check-out moment for Irving and his teammates. Instead, he didn’t point fingers, he didn’t hide from the reality of Boston’s struggles, and he offered confidence-filled responses to tough questions about where the Celtics stand after another embarrassing loss.

Irving was asked if he was worried about Boston’s regular-season struggles seeping into the playoffs this year.

“No, it’ll be fine,” said Irving.

When a follow-up came asking why he felt that way, Irving said simply, “Because I’m here.”

You can certainly argue that Irving is being delusional if he believes Boston can simply flip a switch when the playoffs start. The Celtics have slipped three games behind the Indiana Pacers in the race for the No. 3 seed in the East and sit a game back of the No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers. If the season ended today, Boston’s potential path to the NBA Finals would feature starting on the road against Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Toronto — assuming all other top seeds besides Boston won out.

That’s an incredibly daunting path, one that the Celtics created with so many poor losses this season (including at home to the likes of the Knicks, Magic, Suns, Lakers, and Clippers). After Irving missed a game-winner against East-leading Milwaukee on Thursday, Saturday’s game in Chicago was supposed to be a palette-cleanser before a visit to Toronto on Tuesday night.

☘️BULLS 126, CELTICS 116

Irving acknowledged the bumps in Boston’s regular-season road but he didn’t make a bigger deal of the game than he had to. He didn’t pin the loss on Boston’s young players (Jayson Tatum started fast and went quiet; Terry Rozier had a mind-numbing net rating of minus-52.2 over 16 minutes), he didn’t suggest that the team isn’t having fun. He didn’t reveal any star players he called for help with leadership.

Irving simply talked with confidence, noting the Celtics has been competitive or beaten some of the top talent in the NBA this season. 

“I don’t get frustrated by this stuff any more,” said Irving. "It’s just part of the regular season. In the playoffs, when we plan for a team, prepare for a team, I still don’t see anybody beating us in seven games.”

Irving’s message was not one echoed throughout Boston’s locker room after Saturday’s debacle. Al Horford said the Celtics can’t just fast forward to the playoffs while Marcus Smart felt Boston’s effort level was embarrassing. Brad Stevens pinned much of the blame for the Celtics’ struggles on himself. But it still resonates that Irving, the face of the franchise, is trying to defuse the situation rather than incite it. Irving finished with a team-high 37 points on 14-of-24 shooting to go along with 10 assists.

The Celtics could use more of that from Irving on the court. And they could use more Swagger Kyrie in the locker room, too. As the bad losses pile up, Celtics players need Irving to remind them of what’s possible if this team can ever figure it all out. 

That’s what good leaders do.

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Celtics Talk Podcast: Has 'Playoff Kyrie' actually arrived? Chris Broussard talks Celtics-Bucks and upcoming offseason

Celtics Talk Podcast: Has 'Playoff Kyrie' actually arrived? Chris Broussard talks Celtics-Bucks and upcoming offseason

Chris Broussard of FOX Sports joins Kyle Draper, A. Sherrod Blakely and Chris Forsberg to talk Celtics-Bucks after our C's trio recaps the Pacers series and looks ahead to Milwaukee.

1:42 - Kyle Draper, A. Sherrod Blakely and Chris Forsberg give their takes on the Celtics' performance in their four-game sweep of the Indiana Pacers. Has this team reached it's full potential yet and what does that mean for their upcoming series vs. the Milwaukee Bucks?

4:03 - It seemed like for the final quarter of the season Kyrie Irving had mentally moved onto the playoffs. Now that the Celtics are there, has Kyrie backed up that mentality or does he need to bring it to another level vs. the Bucks?

7:41 - The guys talk about who impressed in the first round other than Kyrie and look ahead to the possible return of Marcus Smart.

13:07 - The Celtics will have to deal with Giannis Antetokounmpo and figure out a way to shut him down if they want to move on. Chris explains why he thinks it's up to Al Horford and Semi Ojeleye to get that done.

17:55 - Chris Broussard from FOX Sports joins the conversation to give his prediction of the series -- it's not exactly pro-Celtics.

23:17 - Moving onto the upcoming offseason, Chris Broussard discusses why Kyrie's performance in the upcoming series dictates what he will do in free agency this summer.

26:54 - Broussard talks about the potential of Anthony Davis coming to Boston, how much Kyrie staying would influence that and how involved executive vice president of basketball operations for the New Orleans Pelicans David Griffin will be in the situation.

32:49 - Finally, Chris Broussard gives his takes on where some key players might land this offseason including Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and more.

LISTEN AND SUBSCRIBE:

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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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