Whether Semi Ojeleye was going to return to the Celtics this year was something doubted by many entering the 2020-21 season, but Boston picked up his player option.
And he’s made the most of that opportunity so far, with a much-deserved big game as they defeated the Orlando Magic 124-97 with five players out.
“Man, Semi. I work hard. Like, I’ll say that, first and foremost,” Jaylen Brown said after scoring a game-high 21 points in his postgame Zoom media availability.
Ojeleye followed that up with 18 points off the bench with six boards, all defensive, and an assist.
“Semi, I always say, probably works harder than me. Semi is a hardworking guy, man, and I’ve seen it for the last four seasons and I’ve seen him continue to get better,” Brown said. “I’ve seen things not go his way, I’ve seen him not play minutes, and I see him get frustrated at times. Semi can play basketball, man, and I’m glad he had a game like this so other people can see. But Semi can definitely play basketball as long as he keeps his head up and keeps working and he continues to get opportunity I think he’ll perform.”
After the Celtics practiced for the first time Thursday after shutting things down due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, coach Brad Stevens was asked if multiple games being postponed was a silver lining, allowing Boston to get healthy.
In response, Stevens kind of suggested the opposite, and went into great detail about how he hoped to see some younger guys and players who don’t usually get as much playing time see decent minutes in a unique situation.
A lot of the guys normally on the end of the bench got those chances tonight off the bench.
“We missed each other, we missed being on that court. It was a unique night where everybody that usually doesn’t get to play or usually doesn’t get as much playing time was able to go out there and showcase their talent and showcase everything they’ve been working on,” Smart said in his postgame media availability.
“Semi has been doing this for as long as I can even imagine right now. We’re really excited for those guys, especially Semi. He doesn’t get as much playing time, he doesn’t get much talked about, he doesn’t get much exposure. But that guy works his tail off every day, day in and day out and he never complains. He comes in and he’s professional and he waits his turn, and when his number is called he comes out and applies what he’s been working on.”
Javonte Green dropped double-digit points off the bench (10) too, while rookie Aaron Nesmith’s five points included a big 3-pointer and Tacko Fall had an electric final stretch going 3-for-3 from the field with a huge block.
Here’s what else went down:
— Brown tied his career high in assists against Orlando (eight) in one of the best examples yet of how much the emerging All-Star has grown as a facilitator.
“Every year I try to get better but at the same time I’ve gotten more and more opportunities so I think that’s the biggest difference,” Brown said of his effort to step up, especially as the Celtics started their season without point guard Kemba Walker.
“With opportunity you get experience and experience starts to turn into awards and performances. So I’m just grateful to be able to be in this position to have this responsibility and I’m trying to handle it the best that I can.”
— Stevens revealed before the game that the Celtics didn’t know whether Brown, Theis, Ojeleye or Green would be available until the afternoon when negative COVID-19 tests came back for all four players.
And on top of that, they had one practice this week.
It didn’t matter in a convincing game against a team with plenty of injury woes of its own, but still, the Celtics were happy with the energy they brought Friday.
“We’re professionals, every last one of us, for a reason,” Smart said. “I’m very happy with the way we were able to come out here, focus, and do what we were supposed to do on both ends of the floor and do what we had to do getting ready for the game on short notice.
“It’s hectic. A whirlwind tornado you can call it. Brad, throughout this whole process has been telling us, ‘be able to hit curveballs.’ For us, we had a curveball when we found out we might be short more guys than we would expect.”
— Theis, after being upgraded to questionable just hours before the game, did not start Friday, but had five points and two assists.
Instead, Grant Williams was alongside Tristan Thompson and the other starters, and after the game Stevens gave some clarity about the two big lineup and how centers will be used going forward.
“Tristan and Theis both on, we tried to keep them around 20-24 (minutes) just because of the inactivity of the week, we couldn’t start him,” Stevens said about not starting Theis.
“It made sense not to, it made sense to bring one guy off the bench, and that will just continue. I’ve told both those guys that they’re both really good players. They both help us in a lot of ways. Sometimes they might start, sometimes they might come off, but the minutes probably will be pretty similar to where they were tonight shared between them.”
— During the game, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps reported that in addition to the players still out due to the the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols, assistant coaches Jay Larranaga and Jerome Allen are also away from the team.
“We’ve got a big staff, we’ve got a great staff, we don’t want to have anybody missing or out but those guys are still adding as much value as possible while they’re out,” Stevens said after the game.
“I’m sure Jay has rewound Tacko’s jumpshot 58 times already and watched it with great joy.”
— Up next, the Boston Celtics host the New York Knicks at TD Garden on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.