Brad Stevens shut down any conversation about tightening up the rotation going into the postseason. With his roster depleted he was going to delve into all 11 players available, as he announced before the Bucks series that his bench would be a big part of what the Celtics would do in the playoffs.
Even that didn’t encapsulate the stunning move of the Bucks series, one that various players around the Celtics attributed most to Boston pulling away from Milwaukee in seven games.
Stevens will coach again on Monday in large thanks to the defensive production of Semi Ojeleye, the 37th overall pick in the 2017 Draft, primarily guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will likely finish in the top-10 of MVP voting.
All Antetokounmpo had done prior to game five was drop two 30-point bombs on Boston’s defense, shoot 62 percent from the field and make “All of Australia” look like a deserted island, as he tore through Aron Baynes consistently to smash the ball through the rim.
In a series where the best player, or two, sat on the opposing side Stevens contended with the necessity of moving the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands. It worked to varying degrees in a narrow five-point win in game five, then crashed and burned as Antetokounmpo shredded Ojeleye with relentless drives to the paint on the way to 31 points.
Brandon Jennings and Jason Terry clowning Semi Ojeleye after getting euro-dropped by Giannis pic.twitter.com/KU47heD9bk— Draywob Green (@World_Wide_Wob) April 27, 2018
The experiment could’ve ended there. But Stevens stuck with it, and for the third straight game Ojeleye started alongside Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Al Horford for the round’s deciding game.
“If you look at any of the numbers or just watch, (Ojeleye’s) our best player guarding Giannis,” Stevens said before game seven. “At the end of the day we can’t keep him from getting every shot, but as far as making him take as tough a shot as possible, he’s done a good job of that. Lot of other guys will rotate on him.”
The Twitter buzz does justice to Ojeleye’s physique. Where most players exit college struggling to pack on the pounds, he exited SMU with a 236-pound frame of pure muscle on top of 6’7” height. It didn’t take long for Boston’s resident expert on bulk to chime in on him either.
As Ojeleye supplanted his role as the most swole, Marcus Smart observed that he looks like a “3,000 character.” He was referring to 300, but had to add an extra 0 because even that wouldn’t do justice.
More impressive was the affinity that Stevens expressed toward him early in the season. He pressed him into difficult defensive assignments following the loss of Gordon Hayward, first among them: Antetokounmpo.
As much as the visual spectacle of Ojeleye revolves around his shredded arms, the strength of his basketball game struck around the floor. His footwork on defense shines nearly as bright as Jayson Tatum’s on the offensive end. The feet always turn square to the attacking player and plant firmly to his ground, which puts him in position to stonewall drivers with his chest and constantly maintain his spot on the floor.
Against Antetokounmpo, closing off the driving lane is paramount. Although he’s capable backing down, he prefers to roll downhill through defenders and leap toward the rim. Ojeleye never allowed that to happen, with his feet responding to every movement Giannis made. He never overcommitted to the threat of the jump-shot even if it cost him a few points as it did to open game seven on a fadeaway.
The responsibility was never all Ojeleye’s, Al Horford would rotate in often, blocking Antetokounmpo on an early switch, but at the initial point of defense Ojeleye’s physicality and lateral speed provided hope of deferment. In the tone-setting first quarter, Antetokounmpo only looked to shoot six times and tossed a ball away after Ojeleye slammed the door shut on the paint. It was the first of his four turnovers.
Even with the effort to slow Antetokounmpo clearly being the work of an entire team of versatile defenders, slow being a relative term at 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists, Horford still highlighted Ojeleye’s impact to the highest degree.
“Semi is probably the guy that we need to be talking about,” he said. “Defensively, we’re not able to do all the things we were able to do without Semi.”
Ojeleye’s presence began with entry into a desperation lineup in game four that sparked a 20-6 run alongside Rozier, Brown, Tatum and Horford. That become Boston’s starting unit in game five and rolled from there. It quickly became Stevens’ most-used lineup in the series, posting a +16.8 rating in 49 minutes with its 97.2 points allowed per 100 possessions. The unit still shot an effective 55.7 percent, despite Ojeleye’s limitations.
The shooting never mattered for Stevens. Thrust into 73 games, Ojeleye rarely shot and posted a 34 percent field goal percentage in his rookie season. The three-pointers and slashing drives that elevated his status as a Duke transfer to SMU rarely flashed with the Celtics, but the continued sense that players deep down his bench need engagement funneled minutes Ojeleye’s way.
“Having this experience, having this confidence, I think it will really be something I’ll look back on that really got me to where I end up going,” he said.
0s may mark the field goal column up and down his regular season, but so too did games played. Within short order, he became the “ox” to his teammates, even as Twitter crowned him the Ojeleye Factory.
“He’s as strong as anybody in the league when he gets hit on a drive,” Stevens said prior to game six.
That praise, the encouragement and grooming of young players into key situations remains a Stevens staple. As he spoke in an early huddle, emphasizing active hands and hard body stances, with tight engagement defensively it sounded like he was describing Ojeleye’s defense to the rest of the team.
No stone goes unturned on Stevens’ bench, so the possibility was always open for a second round pick to save his season.
SEMI OJELEYE ON GUARDING GIANNIS: