Sullinger puts it all together in loss to Portland

Sullinger puts it all together in loss to Portland
November 15, 2013, 11:45 pm
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Jared Sullinger says his injured left hand hasn't really bothered him in games.

(USA Today Sports Images)

BOSTON — Jared Sullinger doesn't have dynamic, above-the-rim skills. He won't be winning many sprints up and down the basketball court, either.

But in these first 10 games of the season (eight of which he played in), we're slowly but surely coming to realize that he's the most important player to this team's chances at winning.

And for the first time this season on Friday night, Sullinger got a chance to showcase his talents over an extended period of time.

Boston came up short 109-96 to Portland on Friday, but it certainly wasn't due to a lack of production from Sullinger who had a career-high 26 points to go with eight rebounds.

It was the kind of performance that doesn't mean a ton to most folks outside of the 6-1-7.

But for a Celtics team that's desperately trying to establish an identity and a go-to guy, Sullinger was as close as we've seen to someone having both the talent and desire to be that player.

Even as the Blazers continued to drain 3s or get buckets from LaMarcus Aldridge (27 points, 12 rebounds) and Nicolas Batum (18 points, six assists, five rebounds), there was Sullinger, in the trenches fighting for loose balls all game.

And to show his growth as a player offensively, he stepped out and drilled a couple of 3s for good measure.

"He shot the ball well, he posted ... he's probably our best post-player," said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. "And so we've got to figure out a way to utilize everybody better."

He's right, of course.

But a big part of that should be figuring out how to get the most out of Sullinger and have his teammates find a way to play off of him better.

Despite being undersized at 6-foot-9, he has the strength and basketball savvy to create space to shoot jumpers or "bully-ball" guys inside the paint for lay-ups.

"He's a really strong player," Charlotte's Cody Zeller told CSNNE.com prior to the Bobcats' win over Boston earlier this week. "He knows how to use his body to score and rebound. He's a tough player to guard, for sure."

And the crazy part about Sullinger's game is it came in a season-high 36 minutes which in itself is amazing when you consider his conditioning is nowhere near where it needs to be for him to be at the top of his game.

Sullinger is a husky player so conditioning will always be a concern. But his issues   have more to do with the fact that he underwent back surgery less than nine months ago and has had to spend the bulk of his time since then resting and not working out.

And to think, Friday's game was his first back after suffering a bruised bone in his right knee on Monday against Orlando.

Following Friday's loss, Sullinger admitted the knee was bothering him some.

"It was kind of sore (while playing on Friday)," Sullinger said. "But that's what treatment's for. I wish we got the win, but it is what it is."

And what we see now is a Celtics team that's continuing their journey in what is the most difficult month of their season.

Yes, the losses are in greater abundance than what they would like.

But within each setback, there are clear and undeniable signs that this team isn't as far off as their record might indicate.

In order for the Celtics to turn their struggles into success stories, they will need multiple players to continue to impact the game in an assortment of positive ways.

But within that, someone has to emerge as a reliable force, a consistent go-to type of player to bring some order to what can be a chaotic situation.

Fans and the media have pegged Jeff Green to be that guy, and his game-winner at Miami certainly gave credence to that optimism.

But as much as Green has the talent to be that player, there are legitimate concerns as to whether he truly wants that kind of responsibility.

Sullinger clearly does.

He has been the focal point on just about every team he has played for, and admits that he relishes every opportunity he gets to be in that role.

And if he can stay healthy and continues improving as a player, Boston's rebuilding project may have finally found that one foundation piece that's not only strong enough for the job required, but talented enough as well.