Semi Ojeleye's clutch defensive efforts for Celtics aren't going unnoticed

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Chris Forsberg
·4 min read
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Forsberg: An ode to Semi Ojeleye, Boston's ultimate clutch defender originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

There are many thankless tasks that NBA role players perform but getting deployed to defend Kawhi Leonard in crunch time has to be tops among them.

That’s exactly what Celtics coach Brad Stevens asked fourth-year forward Semi Ojeleye to do on Friday night in Los Angeles. Ojeleye had labored through one of his roughest shooting nights of the season and his reward was being asked to contain one of the league’s most clutch players on consecutive possessions. 

And Ojeleye was up to the challenge.

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After Kemba Walker’s broken-play pull-up jumper put Boston up one with 32.1 seconds to play, Ojeleye subbed in for Carsen Edwards. The Clippers immediately put the ball in the hands of Leonard.

After fighting through an initial screen to ensure Walker didn’t get switched onto Leonard, Ojeleye forced the two-time NBA Finals MVP to settle for an off-balance pull-up from the right block. Leonard’s shot was a bit too strong. 

The Clippers had another chance to tie after Boston made a couple free throws. This time Ojeleye did a nice job making it tough for Leonard to simply receive the ball, first fronting him in the post and then staying close when Leonard finally got the ball above the arc.

Ojeleye was careful not to reach when Leonard eventually went up with a shot, which he front-rimmed as Boston was able to salt away the win.

It’s easy to look at the box score and dismiss Ojeleye’s efforts on a night where he missed six of eight shots, including five 3-pointers. But Stevens wasn’t bashful about leaning on his defense in a key spot.

"Semi’s been there, done that,” said Stevens. "He doesn’t get a lot of attention for what he does. But it’s not the easiest role in the world to get subbed in with 32 seconds left and guard Kawhi Leonard 1-on-1. In a week’s time, he’s on LeBron [James] at the end of the [Lakers] game and Kawhi at the end of the game. That’s how teams work, right? We don’t need everybody to put on a cape. We just need everybody to do their job well.”

Here are Ojeleye’s top defensive assignments based on total possessions defended this season per the NBA’s matchup data: Rui Hachimura, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He only spent a total of 28 seconds on Leonard on Friday night but forced the two key misses.

The Celtics are not-so secretly looking around for someone who can add size and shooting to their bench. That potential addition could bite deep into Ojeleye’s playing time. Ojeleye’s streakiness with his 3-point shot has made it a priority for the team to upgrade at that spot.

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But what a luxury for Stevens to be able to call on Ojeleye in these sort of spots and know that, at worst, he’s going to give you maximum effort. It’s not fair to Ojeleye but quite a compliment that Stevens trusts him that much on the defensive end.

For the season, the Celtics own a defensive rating of 104.5 in Ojeleye’s 349 minutes of floor time. That’s 5.2 points lower than the team’s season average and the best among all regulars. Ojeleye has a net rating of plus-7.5 overall this year, third best on the team behind only Payton Pritchard (plus-8.5) and Jayson Tatum (plus-8.2).

While the Gordon Hayward saga played out in November, there was a 48-hour stretch where it looked like Ojeleye wasn’t even going to be back in Boston. But when Hayward signed with Charlotte, the Celtics elected to keep Ojeleye as a depth option. Even before Friday night, they were glad they did.

Ojeleye might be only an emergency option later in the year depending on the moves this team makes and the health of the roster. But Stevens would still have the luxury of deploying him with full trust against top-tier competition.

And Ojeleye deserves a little attention for routinely embracing — and thriving — in that thankless role.

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Washington
+200+7.5O 230.5
Boston
-250-7.5U 230.5