Sullinger thrives for Celtics as pestering rookie

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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."

Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

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Sixers' success against C's defense shows Boston still has room to grow

Avery Bradley was a member of the NBA’s All-Defensive first team a year ago. And Al Horford has been among the league’s best interior defenders for a number of years.

But as talented defensively as they may be, the Celtics are still learning how to play with each other as well as off of one another.

Injuries have slowed down the chemistry developing as quickly as some might expect. Horford missed nine games due to a concussion, and another game due to wife giving birth to their second child, Alia Horford.

And in Boston’s 107-106 win over Philadelphia on Saturday night, defensive chemistry -- not only among Horford and Bradley, but with all of the players -- remains a work in progress for sure.

Boston had a number of defensive issues in the first half which factored in the Sixer shooting 46.1 percent from the field while shooting 9-for-18 from 3-point range.

But the second half was an entirely different story as Boston’s defense picked up his intensity and focus level which would prove to be just enough to beat a scrappy Sixers team.

The Celtics (12-8) are four games over .500 for the first time this season currently have the third-best record in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland (13-5) and Toronto (14-6). 

And while the players point to a handful of games that they felt they gave away, Avery Bradley reminds all that the success of this team this season has for the most part come with key players out of the mix or limited in some capacity.

“We haven’t played that many games with the full roster,” Bradley told reporters after the win. “We’re still learning how to play with each other.”

Bradley pointed out a moment in Saturday’s victory where a miscommunication between him and Horford led to a defensive miscue.

Boston has had similar mistakes made on offense this season, too.

“We haven’t really been in pick-and-roll that much,” Bradley said. “Every single game we need to improve.”

And that improvement has to continue evolving on the defensive side of things for this team to achieve its goals this season which include being among the last teams standing in the East.

Doing that will likely mean Boston re-establishing itself as a defensive force, something that should come with time and experience playing with each other.

Horford, who signed a four-year, $113 million deal with Boston in the offseason, says it’s an ongoing process for all involved.

“I have to learn to play with our concepts, the guys have to learn to play with me,” Horford told reporters after Saturday’s win. “We just have to make sure we keep playing the right way, be more consistent with that. I feel like we’re getting better but there’s still some work that we need to do.”

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.