Semi Ojeleye’s season of opportunity emerged from tragedy, when five minutes and 15 seconds of his rookie season ticked away and he watched from the bench as Gordon Hayward jumped, fell and never got up. In the midst of deafening silence, he placed his arms around Aron Baynes and Shane Larkin, speaking up to lead Boston through prayer for their injured teammate.
Soon after Brad Stevens pointed to Ojeleye. On opening night on TNT, he would guard LeBron James.
Jayson Tatum, blocked in his first meeting with one of the greatest talents in basketball history, observed how much more commanding his presence is on the court than you could imagine. Ojeleye had pondered it too.
“Coach saying you’re going to guard LeBron is something you’re wondering about when you’re getting into the league or growing up,” he said. “But once you’re out there you play instinctually and just try to do your job.”
Matt Suther, Larry Brown and now Stevens all preached defense, which helped Ojeleye seize in on that end of the floor as his passion. While Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier traded attempts at spinning, ridiculous layups while practice closed on Monday afternoon, Ojeleye stood on the other end of the court with both hands raised, feet shoulder-width apart and chest protruded to mimic the stance he’ll take once again on James in game two.
Years earlier, playing for Ottawa High School in Kanasas, he remembered a coach telling him that countless players will become scorers. He could set himself apart with how he shut those players down.
“Even if you’re scoring a lot of points,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys out there who are really talented on the offensive end so you have to be able to slow them down as much as you can.”
With that mindset, he found a home in Boston as Danny Ainge arranged a roster of long, switchable, strong and versatile players with defensive strengths. Even with years of experience on him, no player on the Celtics packs more muscle than Ojeleye at 6’7”, 235-pounds.
That combination of height with a ripped, jacked frame put him in the equation for playing man defense on some of the most highly-touted physical specimens in the NBA. On opening night it was LeBron, in the first round of the playoffs he broke into the starting lineup due to his success slowing Giannis Antetokounmpo.
The speed gap, going from the starting rotation at SMU to the Quicken Loans Arena in a few months, closed thanks to practice assignments against Kyrie Irving, Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart and others who he referred to among the quickest attackers in the NBA.
“Playing against them helped me prepare for what’s ahead.”
He noticed Smart, who’d later dub Ojeleye “the ox” as a fellow strongman, carried a boundless energy into these practices and tried to reflect that consistent energy, particularly on the defensive side.
That preparation gave Stevens enough confidence to check him into the opening night game, 10 minutes in, with Boston’s interior and transition defense collapsing into a double-digit deficit. Ojeleye spent much of his entry floating near the paint, attempting to stay close enough to help on those drives. Halfway through the second, as Derrick Rose closed in on him at the rim, he could have found his opportunity to do so. Then Rose flipped the ball to his right, sending Ojeleye running toward James.
Before he even could raise his arms in defense, James had transferred into a pass to to Kevin Love ahead of Kyrie Irving on the left side of the paint.
Seven months later everything’s still a learning process, pressed with the same defensive assignment for the Celtics as they’ve lost even more personnel through the season, coaches constantly whisper in his ear through these high-profile assignments.
Use your hands more, they remind him, pressure, make (James) uncomfortable.
“It’s tough you’re thinking about not letting him drive, pull up,” he said. The goal, ultimately, is to force a pass. He credits instinct, awareness and having a short memory.
Much like his teammates, who’ve taken plenty of lumps of adversity, perspective became key.
“It’s basketball at the end of the day, good things are going to happen and bad things are going to happen. It is what it is.”
Diving back into the tape, his best friend through stints in and out of the lineup to stay fresh on possible scenarios to come, Ojeleye affirmed that Boston did its job against James on Sunday. While Stevens and others expect his best on Tuesday, they found ways to bother him, including a dose of 18 minutes of Ojeleye’s defense. Morris, in 24 minutes of defense, held James to five points.
The Celtics used multiple efforts to reach Cleveland’s shooters on the perimeter, he said, kept James outside and forced some difficult fadeaways.
“You try to stay on him as long as you can whether it’s a ball screen or anything.”
Now Tristan Thompson, likely to play a larger role in game two, will enter that equation. Adding to the anticipation and complexity of this James challenge, but Ojeleye’s already thinking ahead. The threat on the boards, the screens, it’s all crossing his mind in a season where he and young teammates have had little time to think with so much to do.