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Semi Ojeleye’s gritty play gave Celtics much-needed lift

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Semi Ojeleye’s play allowed him to stay on the floor for an incredibly long stretch versus the Miami Heat.

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Semi Ojeleye’s playing time fluctuates as much, if not the most, of any member of the Boston Celtics.

Ojeleye sat for the entirety of the first quarter Wednesday night against the visiting Miami Heat, but once inserted into the game to start the second quarter, the third-year forward out of Southern Methodist University, who celebrates his 25th birthday Thursday, didn’t make his way back to the bench for a long time.

And it was for good reason.

Boston found its groove with Ojeleye on the floor, as he played 24 consecutive minutes to key a C’s turnaround from an 11-point first-half deficit to a convincing 112-93 win over the Heat. Ojeleye, who scored just five points, but made a big impact on the defensive end and grabbed a career-high seven rebounds, finished as a plus-21.

“(Ojeleye) was really good,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those 24 minutes were our best 24 minutes defensively.”

After the Celtics allowed 28 first-quarter points and fell into an eight-point hole, they had their best defensive quarter in the second stanza by holding the Heat to a mere 16 points in the frame.

Ojeleye played a large role in the C’s picking up their defensive intensity as after starting the second quarter, Ojeleye didn’t sit out again until 26 seconds into the fourth quarter. Jaylen Brown called Ojeleye the team’s “anchor” on the defensive end and Ojeleye looked it. Ojeleye helped the Celtics find their defensive form starting in that second quarter by taking a charge and getting into passing lanes to disrupt the Heat’s offensive rhythm.

“He’s in the right spot. He’s where he’s supposed to be,” said Stevens of Ojeleye’s defense. “He plays with good physicality and he got a number of deflections in the paint just by being in the right position.”

With Marcus Smart sidelined due to an illness, Ojeleye did his best Smart impersonation. Ojeleye provided not only strong defense, but also recorded the hustle plays that Smart routinely makes to give energy to his teammates.

In the waning seconds of the first half, Ojeleye turned in one of those Smart-esque plays as he tracked down a long rebound off a Jayson Tatum miss and tapped the ball over to Kemba Walker, who found Jaylen Brown in the corner for a 3-pointer.

Also like Smart, when the C’s needed a timely bucket, Ojeleye delivered. With the Heat picking up momentum and getting within five late in the third quarter, Ojeleye knocked down his only field goal of the game, which came off an inbound play as he sank a corner 3-pointer.

While Ojeleye’s minutes differ greatly on a nightly basis, his effort is always there as his gritty play, which comes in a number of areas but mostly defensively, gave the Celtics a lift once again.

“I’m happy for him,” Tatum said. “He works his tail off every day.”