LAS VEGAS — Semi Ojeleye’s rookie season in the NBA was far more than he ever envisioned. The second-round pick turned himself into a plus defender and played quality minutes throughout the Celtics’ run to the Eastern Conference finals.
Now established as a rotation player, Ojeleye is attempting to take that next step of being more efficient offensively and more precise defensively. In the Celtics’ first-round tournament game against the New York Knicks on Thursday, Ojeleye blended both into his best game of the summer.
He led the Celtics with 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting with six rebounds and made matters tough for the Knicks’ top pick, Kevin Knox of Kentucky, in the Celtics’ 82-73 win at the Thomas & Mack Center. Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown watched the game — in which the Celtics led the entire way — from courtside.
Boston advances to play Miami on Saturday in the round of 16 after its third win in four summer games. Ojeleye helped the Celtics take an early lead, although the Knicks sliced a 21-point deficit to 4 in the late going.
Jabari Bird added 13 points along with 10 rebounds and 4 assists and Guerschon Yabusele scored 12 points and had rebounds. For the third consecutive game, Celtics’ first-round pick Robert Williams sat out with a sore left knee.
Ojeleye emerged as a critical piece of the second-unit defense, and coach Brad Stevens has stressed that he has to be more consistent and play with more physicality and versatility.
“Just try to make the most of opportunities like I did last year,” Ojeleye said of his goals entering his second season. “They’ll come. I know they’ll come one way or another. Mentally I’m more calm out there and that helps. Through the ups and downs of last season, you learn to stay even keel.”
Knox, 18, had been sparkling in the previous three games, averaging 23.3 points and 7.3 rebounds. He finished with 15 Thursday on 5-for-20 shooting, as Ojeleye used his physicality to make him uncomfortable.
“He’s a great player and you always want to play against the best,” Ojeleye said of Knox. “He’s been playing well and I knew if we were going to win we had to make it tough on him. I took the challenge.”