As on and off as Semi Ojeleye’s spot within the Boston Celtics’ rotation has been in three-plus seasons, his role has always stopped short of the starting lineup. Ojeleye had just 10 starts in 220 career games, but Brad Stevens didn’t hesitate to add one more.
Stevens was concerned that the two bigs--Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis--Boston has trotted out to start most games this season would be exposed by a resurgent Pascal Siakam, who came into this game averaging 25.7 points on 50.8 percent shooting in his last seven games.
Ojeleye offered more of the mobility Stevens was looking for without having to sacrifice size to get it, but the lineup tweak only did so much to slow one of the game’s hottest players who finished with 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting.
Instead, the fourth-year forward wound up sparking the Celtics’ offense in ways he’d rarely sniffed before. A game-high 24 points and six 3-pointers represented career-highs for Ojeleye, and the Celtics snapped a two-game skid with a 120-106 victory largely because of it.
“Toronto is a hard team to start two bigs against,” Stevens said after the game. “You always know you can go to Sem. And you know exactly what you’re getting.”
To confess that Ojeleye’s elite shooting performance was unforeseen doesn’t provide the full context of why.
This career night was not the culmination of growing perimeter proficiency for Ojeleye. His 3-point shot had actually regressed from the career-best mark of 37.8 percent last season to just 33.3 percent heading into the Toronto game.
There was a five-game window in early January where it looked like Ojeleye had discovered something in the new year. He was 12-of-26 (46.2 percent) in that stretch — coincidentally the Celtics won all five of those games. But whatever momentum began to snowball didn’t last as he made just 22.2 percent of his long balls in the 12 games that followed.
If Ojeleye was to crack the 20-point barrier for just the second time in his career, you would’ve thought most of the buckets to get there would’ve looked an awful lot like his first. Energy and hustle are what his game stands on, and he showed that by beating all five Raptors down the court to sneak behind their defense and put points on the board with a well-adjusted layup.
That wound up as one of only two 2-point field goals Ojeleye had in over 30 minutes of action. They simply weren’t needed on this night thanks to the confidence exuded with his first 3-point attempt that set the stage for the ones that followed.
Maybe it was the space Toronto afforded or an experimental heat check after scoring the Celtics’ second points of the game. But on Boston’s very next possession, Ojeleye caught a bounce pass from Jaylen Brown off a pick-and-pop and didn’t hesitate to fire up a triple that dropped through the net.
You know how these types of shooting nights typically progress from there. One make begets a second attempt and so on and so forth. But even after missing that next look, Ojeleye failed to show any signs of passivity. Good thing, too, because he hit his next three from beyond the arc.
Siakam may have torched Ojeleye on the offensive end for most of the game, but Semi made sure to return the favor whenever he could, capitalizing on a wide-open look the All-Star forward gave him off a beautiful pass by Brown for one of his career-high 10 assists.
“Those guys garner a lot of attention,” Ojeleye said of Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Kemba Walker. “So for us that are off the ball, it’s just always about being ready... Just always being ready and giving them space to operate and they’ll find you wherever you’re open.”
The shots were falling with such proficiency to the point where Boston grew dissatisfied letting the Raptors dictate Ojeleye’s shot selection. They were impatient waiting for Toronto’s defense to open up the chance for Ojeleye to build on the early stages of what wound up a career night. So they went and created one themselves by screening an unsuspecting Siakam to free up the hot hand in the corner.
“We are all confident in Semi,” Kemba Walker said after the game. “He works so hard.”
Ojeleye’s performance stood out for reasons that reach beyond his sense of individual accomplishment.
This game marked the first during the 2020-21 season where Boston was led in scoring by someone other than Tatum or Brown. More impressively, Ojeleye and Payton Pritchard — 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting from distance — became the first pair in the long history of the Celtics to each hit six or more 3-pointers in the same game.
Upon hearing of the accomplishment he now gave precedence to, Ojeleye’s eyes widened and only two words followed. And yet even that was enough to properly contextualize maybe the best moment of his young NBA career.
“I really just try to focus on the process of shooting and not necessarily the result,” Ojeleye said in his postgame presser. “When you get caught up in makes or misses you kind of ride that up and down. But this year I just tried to focus on shooting the ball the right way and God takes care of the rest.”