It is no coincidence that the Boston Celtics won six consecutive games (before they fell to the New Orleans Hornets on Wednesday) because of their improvements on the defensive end. The Celtics are getting consistent production from their bench and the rebounding of rookie forward Jared Sullinger.
Sullinger posted double digit rebounds in wins over the Phoenix Suns (16) and the Houston Rockets (11). The 6-foot-9-inch forward has accumulated most of his boards on the offensive end and he has helped the Celtics get out of last place in offensive rebounding.
During the winning streak, Sullinger averaged nearly 10 points and nine rebounds per game. He also corralled 21 offensive rebounds in this stretch against players such as Tyson Chandler of the New York Knicks, Atlanta Hawks’ Josh Smith and Al Horford, and the duo of Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola of the Suns.
Despite Sullinger being undersized, he is able to outmuscle bigger players with a big lower mass that is able to push opponents away from the basket. He is also able to do this on the defensive end of the court.
Teammates have praised Sullinger for his basketball intelligence, his interior passing, and the ability to score. Sullinger can also make 15-foot jumpers outside the paint. Most of Sullinger’s scoring has come from within five feet of the basket because he has strong post moves and of his rebounding ability.
At the beginning of the year, the Celtics believed they had strong depth inside with Sullinger or Brandon Bass and Darko Milicic as reserves along with Chris Wilcox. The Celtics lost Milicic because he went back to Serbia to take care of his ailing mother. Bass has struggled with inconsistency. Wilcox suffered a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb and has been out since December 18th. Bass was just reinserted into the starting lineup and Jason Collins is playing limited minutes due to nagging injuries. This has left Sullinger to be a force and to play a big role in the reserve unit.
The biggest reason why Sullinger has struggled is his propensity to accumulate fouls early. This issue has not gone away since Sullinger fouled out in the final minute in the 103-91 victory over the Rockets last Friday. He committed three fouls in the first half of the 100-89 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday. He also got into early foul trouble against the Hornets. Officials will pick on Sullinger because he is a rookie. Sullinger’s size forces him to be physical when defending taller forwards, which means he will get called if the officials are calling a tight game.
At this time last year, Sullinger was battling injuries while playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes against Big Ten competition. He fell to the 21st pick in the 2012 NBA Draft in June because teams were worried about his back and conditioning problems. Now, he is in the running for Rookie of the Year while helping the Celtics climb back into the Eastern Conference race. Currently, the Celtics are in seventh place in the Eastern Conference, but they are just four and a half games behind the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat.
Sullinger has provided the Celtics with energy off the bench. If the Celtics continue to win, they will also need continued production from Sullinger.