The Boston Celtics got a gritty win in Game 5—a fitting showcase for the hometown crowd that’s sold out all season for the league’s regular season leaders in defensive rating. The Milwaukee Bucks limped their way to 87 total points, nearly 20 short of their season average at 106.5 and 17 short of their playoff average at 104.
Celtics rookie forward and resident brick house, Semi Ojeleye, was at the heart of the effort to limit Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. Antetokounmpo arrived back in Boston averaging 25.4 points per game in the playoffs. He finished Game 5 with 16, on just 5 of 10 shooting from the field.
Ojeleye has taken the marquee matchup on 18.3 possessions so far this series, good enough to make him the second-most frequent Celtics defender of Antetokounmpo per NBA.com. In those matchups, the long-armed star has managed only 5.5 points. (Al Horford leads all Celtic defenders of Antetokounpo; 10.6 points allowed on 29.4 possessions.)
Brad Stevens gave Ojeleye the starting nod on the parquet Tuesday night, plus 14 more minutes than the young forward played in Game 4. It paid off. Immediately.
On this possession, Eric Bledsoe took off after the Bucks rebounded the Celtics’ first shot attempt (coincidentally an Ojeleye miss on a corner three). Watch Ojeleye put his athleticism on display, keeping his hips pointed at the ball handler while backpedaling. As Bledsoe accelerates, Ojeleye shuffles, keeping himself between the strong guard and the rim and cutting off a direct angle to the paint. By the time Bledsoe has a chance to adjust, he’s walled out of the paint and Al Horford has arrived to contest the next move. Bledsoe whips a wild pass back to the center of the court for an easy Jaylen Brown steal.
The Celtics earn an A for effort on this transition defense, but it’s Ojeyle who gets the A-plus. The degree of difficulty involved in keeping the smaller, faster Bledsoe out of the paint is high. A lot of defenders would break defensive stance and turn to a sprint to chase down the driving Bledsoe. Not this basketball version of The Thing.
Ojeleye’s combination of size, strength, and athleticism have made him key to Boston lineups that can switch just about anything Milwaukee has run so far this series. And—much the way that the Bucks managed to flummox the Celtics to the point of iso-ball in the previous two games—Milwaukee’s offense similarly ground to a halt when Boston switched well.
When the Bucks left Antetokounmpo alone to work on Ojeleye, the rangy Milwaukee star was setting for tough, contested mid or long-range twos. Most of the time, that looked resulted in stuff like this:
The Celtics can live with Antetokounmpo taking this variety of shot, especially when they’re inside the arc. Five games into the series, the MVP-candidate started taking more of them when he saw Ojeleye get in his way.
Is this a great shot by Giannis? You bet. But run the clip back once or twice. Notice Ojeleye tracking the ball handler again, then cutting the drive short well-outside the paint. Antetokounmpo wants to take it to the rim every time, but Semi cuts him off. Giannis settles for a long 2 and the Celtics will live the result.
As I wrote after Game 4, Ojeleye isn’t the off-the-bench offensive jolt of energy whose presence show up immediately in the box score. Instead, the rookie forward’s stalwart defense either stops opponents in their tracks, or slows them to the point that help can arrive and make the play.
Ojeleye forces Antetokounmpo into a circular route on this drive, slowing him down long enough for Marcus Smart to see the play develop and launch into the air for the block. (This play did, however, end on second chance points for Milwaukee.)
The Celtics’ muscle man added 7 rebounds in his 31 minutes in Game 5, the third-most on the roster behind Horford (14) and Marcus Morris (8). He also nailed one of his looks from the corner, sneaking away from the paint as Antetokounmpo again stepped up to play second-level defense on a Horford drive.
Don’t be surprised if Ojeleye snags another 30 or so minutes in Game 6. His defense has been outstanding thus far.