Semi Ojeleye

Celtics use Smart's absence to lock in defensively, lock down the Miami Heat

Celtics use Smart's absence to lock in defensively, lock down the Miami Heat

BOSTON -- Marcus Smart was nowhere to be found on the floor Wednesday night for the Celtics, but make no mistake about it... 

...Smart’s presence, even when he’s not in the building, is still felt by his teammates and opponents, to a lesser extent. 

No Smart (illness) meant the rest of the Celtics had to collectively step up their game defensively. 

Did. They. Ever. 

The Celtics delivered one of their better defensive performances this season as they pulled away for a 112-93 win over the Miami Heat. 

It’s not that huge a surprise until you realize that the Celtics defense delivered on a night without Smart, a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago which validates his reputation as one of the league’s top defenders. 

The Celtics (15-5) began their surge defensively in the second quarter. Facing an eight-point deficit (28-20) after the first quarter, they took control over the next three quarters as they outscored the Heat, 92-65.

They were getting deflections, hustling down loose balls, diving on the floor…basically making a bunch of Marcus Smart-like plays.

Following the win, Celtics players were quick to acknowledge not having Smart forced them all to pay closer attention to their individual and team assignments defensively, well aware anything less would surely spoil their perfect home record (8-0) this season. 

“No question, no question you can’t replace Smart,” said Semi Ojeleye. “The intensity that he brings on every possession and the energy and just the plays he makes. He sees what is coming before everybody else does. So we knew we had to bring extra talk in his absence.”

Among the most vocal players was Ojeleye, who played every minute of the second and third quarters in a stretch where the Celtics outscored the Heat, 62-41. 

Placing an even higher emphasis on doing a better job at the “little things” defensively, takes on greater importance on nights such as Wednesday when the team’s defensive leader - Smart - is unable to play. 

“Smart is one of the best defensive players we have in this league,” said Kemba Walker. “He’s our defensive anchor. And when you don’t have him, you have to try your best to make up as much as possible. He is a huge part of what we do, so yeah, you have to be that much more locked in and that much more on point to try and make up for the things that he does for us.”

That involves making smarter plays defensively; the kind that their defensive anchor  Smart makes night-in and night-out. 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Semi Ojeleye's prayer answered with Kemba Walker's better-than-expected status

Semi Ojeleye's prayer answered with Kemba Walker's better-than-expected status

BOSTON -- Semi Ojeleye had no idea what was going on after teammate Kemba Walker collided with his midsection and fell to the ground, motionless for a few minutes in what felt like a few eternities for the Celtics.

So Ojeleye did what has come naturally to him since becoming a Celtic.

He prayed, joined by his teammates who encouraged him to lead the group in prayer - similar to what he did shortly after Gordon Hayward’s season-ending ankle injury in 2017. 

“So we huddled up and prayed that it (Kemba’s injury) wouldn’t be as bad as it looked,” Ojeleye said following Sunday’s practice. 

Needless to say, Ojeleye’s prayer was answered. 

Team officials say that Walker sustained a neck strain injury, and is listed as doubtful for Monday’s game against the Sacramento Kings.

Boston has also called up two-way contract player Tremont Waters from the Maine Red Claws to provide added depth in the backcourt with Walker unlikely to suit up against the Kings.

The fact that Walker is even healthy enough to potentially play speaks volumes to how his injury wasn’t as severe as it appeared to be at the time. 

As you can imagine, Ojeleye has not completely shaken the sequence of events that led to Walker’s injury. 

“At first, I remember Kemba hitting me, (Marcus) Smart got the ball, kind of running out and he (Walker) wasn’t moving, so at first … I’m scared. I’m worried about my teammate more than anything else. He wasn’t moving. It didn’t look good. I was concerned about him at that moment.”

His concerns were shared by the rest of the Celtics who have seen more than their share of players go down with head/neck injuries in recent years. 

Ojeleye said the challenge of continuing to play when something like Walker’s injury happens, is daunting. 

“In that moment, I wasn’t thinking about the game anymore,” Ojeleye said. “I’m thinking about my teammates, especially with me being involved in the play. It’s one thing to see it, it’s another when you’re involved. At that point, it wasn’t about basketball anymore. I know the game is important, but with an injury like that, I’m wondering if he’s moving, talking, walking. I couldn’t really think about the game.”

But there were the Celtics, fighting their way back into the game after a 19-point deficit before ultimately coming up short 96-92. 

This team is too good for moral victories.

But there was definitely an uplifting dynamic in how they responded to the adversity of losing Walker, whose better-than-expected diagnosis, to Ojeleye, serves as an example of having one’s prayers answered. 

“I needed that reminder in that moment,” Ojeleye said. “That God is still looking out for us even when we don’t know what’s going on.”

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Kings, which tips off Monday at 7 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, then Mike & Tommy have the call of the game at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

Celtics-Kings Takeaways: C's 10-game win streak snapped in Sacramento

Celtics-Kings Takeaways: C's 10-game win streak snapped in Sacramento

So. Close. 

Marcus Smart’s potential game-winning floater as time expired hit seemingly every part of the rim, paused for a moment before rolling out as time expired in Boston’s 100-99 loss to Sacramento. 

‘It was a good look in that moment,” Boston’s Brad Stevens told reporters after the loss. 

The loss snapped Boston’s 10-game winning streak, in addition to preventing them from being the first team in NBA history to win 11 in a row after dropping the season opener.

Sacramento (5-7), after dropping their first five games this season, have now won five of their last seven with the lone losses being a road game at defending NBA champion Toronto and a controversial defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers.  

After spending most of the first half playing catch-up, the Celtics — in all-too predictable form — swung the game’s momentum in their favor in the third quarter to take a 75-71 lead into the fourth quarter despite the offensive fireworks put on by Sacramento’s Buddy Hield (game-high 35 points). 

In the fourth, Boston’s slim lead didn’t last long with the Kings tying the game at 75 less than a minute into the quarter, only for Carsen Edwards to drain a 3-pointer to put Boston back on top, 78-75.

Things remained close for the rest of the game before Smart’s potential game-winner rolled out as time expired.  

Here are some takeaways from Boston’s one-point loss at Sacramento.

KEMBA IN THE FOURTH QUARTER

We have come to expect the best from Kemba Walker when the game matters most: the fourth quarter. That was not the case on Sunday, with Walker going scoreless in the fourth quarter to finish with just 15 points. You certainly love the season-high nine assists he tallied, but Walker’s greatest impact on this team night-in, night-out is his scoring down the stretch.

BUDDY HIELD 

The Kings gave Hield a four-year contract extension worth as much as $106 million, and he showed on Sunday why he's worth every penny. Time and time again, he came up with one big shot after another while often being draped by Boston's best perimeter defender — and one of the best in the NBA — Marcus Smart.  Hield led all scorers with 35 points on an efficient 14-for-24 shooting performance from the field.

TURNOVERS

One of the biggest keys to the Celtics’ fast start to the season has been their ability to limit their mistakes. They came into Sunday’s game averaging a league-low 11.7 per game. On Sunday, the Celtics committed 12 of their 15 turnovers in the first half alone.

SEMI (OJELEYE) AUTOMATIC

Ojeleye hit a big 3-pointer in the second quarter, capping off a 7-0 Celtics run to bring Boston within four points (36-32) with 6:30 to play in the first half. He would finish the day with 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field, including a career-high-tying three 3-pointers. It was indeed a breakout scoring game for Ojeleye who came into Sunday’s game having scored just 14 points in Boston’s 11 games this season. 

THEIS IS NICE

While his play doesn’t necessarily find a home on the Celtics’ highlight reel, there’s no getting around the impact that Daniel Theis continues to make on this team. Usually he does it by excelling at intangibles such as setting screens, boxing out and rolling to the basket. But on Sunday, Theis’s impact was made in the more traditional sense: getting points. He finished with a season-high 14 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double this season. It was also the second time in the last three games Theis has reached double figures scoring. 

LINE ‘EM UP

The Celtics did not shoot the ball well against the Kings, but their aggressive play offensively led to a number of trips to the free throw line, which was a huge difference-maker in the game’s outcome. For the game, the Celtics were 21-for-24 from the line, compared to the Kings who were just 10-for-12 at the free throw line, which included Richaun Holmes’ game-winning free throws with 13.3 seconds to play. 

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Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Suns, which tips off Monday at 8 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 9 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.