Sullinger thrives for Celtics as pestering rookie


Sullinger thrives for Celtics as pestering rookie

WALTHAM Jared Sullinger is well liked by his Boston Celtics teammates.

Opponents? That's another story.

The 6-foot-9 rookie has indeed shown a knack for being a nuisance to opposing players which is a factor that has helped both Sullinger and the Celtics run off a season-high-tying three consecutive wins.

In fact, one of the biggest plays made in Boston's 102-96 win at New York on Monday was Sullinger's ability to bother Tyson Chandler and ultimately force him to commit an offensive foul in the third quarter.

With the score tied at 66, Sullinger's forced turnover got the ball back in the hands of the Celtics who in turn took a one-point lead after a Jeff Green free throw.

Boston would never trail for the rest of the game.

Following the play, you could see Chandler pleading his case to the officials who were in no mood to have their opinions swayed. It was clear that Chandler was upset and bothered if not the end result of the play, but also that it was a rookie doing it.

"My role is to be that nagging rookie that nobody likes," Sullinger said. "So when I check in they go, 'Ahh, this rookie!' That's my whole goal this year. Rebound, finish around the rim, knock down open shots and be a nagging rookie. That's my goal."

The 20-year-old has been all that and then some for a Celtics club that has leaned more heavily on him recently.

He's averaging 5.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game on the season. During the Celtics' current three-game winning streak, he's delivering 8.3 points and 8 rebounds per game.

The increased production is in large part due to more opportunities to play. During the current streak, he has averaged 23.7 minutes played per game which is a noticeable spike from his season average of 18.7 minutes played per game.

Despite being an All-American at Ohio State, Celtics captain Paul Pierce said he didn't know too much about Sullinger until after the Celtics selected him in the first round of last June's NBA draft.

"He was pretty much a name to me," Pierce said. "I hadn't really had a chance to watch too many college games."

But since coming to Boston, you can lump Pierce into the growing crowd of folks who have been impressed with the big man's presence and demeanor both on and off the court.

"He's a hard worker," Pierce said. "The good thing about him, he's a very coachable. He listens. He doesn't strike me as one of these new-age rookies who comes in, reading their own press articles and feeling themselves coming into the league and real arrogant. He accepts coaching; he respects the veterans. And with that type of attitude, he's only going to get better."

Added Celtics head coach Doc Rivers: "He's just a physical, tough kid."

Sullinger's solid, but far from a finished product.

A big part of his improvement will be him continuing to do the dirty work that is required of an effective NBA big man, in addition to finding ways to get underneath the skin of opposing players.

"I'm the guy that's always going for the offensive boards," Sullinger said. "I'm the guy that's putting up a fight. I see it working."

There have been too many games to count where Sullinger's play has led to more seasoned players trying to trash talk him, with the goal being to throw off his focus.

Nice try, Sullinger says.

"Everybody thinks just because I'm a rookie they say something, I'm going to back down," Sullinger said. "I grew up around basketball. I played with some of the best. Talking doesn't really affect me."

Haggerty: Subban looking more like a 1st-round bust than NHL goalie

Haggerty: Subban looking more like a 1st-round bust than NHL goalie

BOSTON -- Malcolm Subban still believes he can be a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL.

While that sort of sheer, brazen self-confidence is admirable -- especially after getting yanked from a 5-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild at TD Garden Tuesday -- pretty much all the evidence points to the contrary. Given a shot because of injuries to Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, nearly two years after getting pulled from his only other NHL appearance when he gave up three goals on six shots in St. Louis, Subban was taken out Tuesday night after allowing three goals on eight second-period shots.

He maintained a defiantly confident tone afterwards, a testament to his maturity and mental toughness.

“It sucks," said Subban, who has now allowed six goals on 22 career shots faced in two starts. “Obviously, I’m just trying to finish the game, let alone win one . . . but what can you do now, right?

"Obviously I want to be a No. 1 goaltender in the league. I was a [first-round draft choice] for a reason. I have the potential, and I just have to show it. Obviously I haven’t done that so far yet, but I think I’m getting closer to it. Honestly, I think I can do it right now. I just got to show it . . . I didn’t [do it] today, but tomorrow’s a new day.”

Given the stunningly bad quality of his two NHL starts, combined with a thoroughly pedestrian body of work at the AHL level over the last three years, there is literally zero evidence Subban is tracking to be a franchise goaltender. Meanwhile, a sizeable selection of goaltenders taken after him in the 2012 NHL Draft have proven their worth and advanced to the elite level: Matt Murray. Frederik Anderson. Connor Hellebuyck. Joonas Korpisalo.

Subban was hoping all along to break through this season in Boston, but things went south on him quickly Tuesday in his first chance to do so.

Hampered by a Bruins team not playing well in front of him, the first goal he allowed was a fluttering Charlie Coyle shot that trickled between his glove hand and the top of his leg pad. The third was a softie low and to the glove side, a power-play strike authored by Ryan Suter. Instead of hanging in and giving his team a chance to win, Subban helped put the Bruins in a hole they couldn't escape.

While Claude Julien felt the poor performance "could be a combination" of goaltending and overall defensive lapses, he didn't let Subban off the hook.

“There are some goals -- I’m not going to lie -- there are some goals that we thought our goaltenders should have had," said the coach.

But he also wasn't going to place the blame solely at Subban's feet.

"[I’m] not here to talk about a goaltender -- who’s in one of his first few games -- because he let in a couple of bad goals,” said Julien. “We were terrible in front of him . . .  and that’s the big picture. That’s more important.

“I don’t care who’s in net. I think when you have some injuries you need to be better in those situations and we weren’t good enough tonight. It doesn’t matter if Tuukka is in net and we had injuries up front, or we’re lacking players here or there. You’ve got to let the system take care of the game. If you play it the right way, you have a chance to win. When you don’t, you don’t. That’s what happened [against Minnesota].”

There’s no question the defense in front of Subban wasn’t nearly good enough. Adam McQuaid and Torey Krug in particular struggled to lock things down in the defensive zone. The wide-open shots from the slot -- like the Chris Stewart score in the second period 12 seconds after Minnesota’s opening goal -- are indicative of a hockey club that’s not sticking to the game plan once things start to get a little wonky.

But this is about a player (Subban) who should be entering the NHL stage of his career after being a first-round pick in 2012. Anybody would be hard-pressed to see him as an NHL goalie after his two Bruins appearances. Combine that with the lack of dominance at the AHL level over the last three years, and there’s a better chance that Subban will be a major first-round bust rather than a late-blooming No. 1 goaltender.

The scary part is that Subban and fellow young netminder Zane McIntyre are all the Bruins have for Wednesday night’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and perhaps longer if Rask can’t make a rapid recovery from his lower body injury.

Maybe Subban can be a bit better than he’s shown thus far, and, to be fair, the three goals allowed to Minnesota weren't all his fault. The bottom line, however, is that he should be up for doing this job right now. Tuesday was a big chance for the young goalie to make a statement that he was ready for it.

Instead he looked like the same goalie who'd been pulled from two of his first four AHL starts this season, one who's never going to truly be ready for the call in Boston.