Celtics - Blazers preview: Sullinger ready to help

Celtics - Blazers preview: Sullinger ready to help
November 15, 2013, 1:45 pm
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BOSTON — Jared Sullinger may not be the Boston Celtics' best player.

But they have had two chances this season to see what life without him looks like.

And it ain't pretty.

Sullinger, who missed the season opener while serving a team-imposed, one-game suspension as well as Wednesday's game against Charlotte (bone bruise, right knee), is expected back in the Celtics lineup tonight against Portland.

And his return could not come soon enough as Boston (4-5) faces a Blazers team that features not one but two players with double-doubles scoring and rebounding (LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez) in each of Portland's last three games.

"We got a lot to do (tonight)," Sullinger said. "Especially with their 3-point shooting and inside presence."

That chore becomes a little easier to handle with Sullinger being able to play. He has been the Celtics' leading scorer off the bench this season, averaging 11.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.

"The two games we didn't have him, we missed him," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, whose team is 0-2 without Sullinger in the lineup. "You go back and look at the film, and we just didn't have as much of a post presence with him out, as we do with him in."

Having had lower back surgery just nine months ago, Sullinger says he has been pleasantly surprised at how quickly his game has taken shape.

"Some of those spin moves I did on Monday night (against Orlando)," Sullinger said, "last year I wouldn't have come close to successfully pulling that off."

He has been solid, which has meant very few questions about his back after undergoing surgery in February.

"I thought people forgot about my surgery," Sullinger said. "Hardly anyone talks about it anymore. Honestly I'm shocked the way I'm playing now coming off surgery. To be able to do the things I'm doing. I feel pretty good about myself as far as the movements and stuff."

As quickly as Stevens will praise Sullinger's play, he recognizes that there's still plenty of room for him to be an even better player than he is now.

"It's encouraging, But I think he can go further," Stevens said. "A little bit of a setback (Wednesday) night not being able to play, but hopefully that's behind him."

Here are a few more keys to tonight's game:

WHAT TO LOOK FOR:  The battle along the 3-point line will be an interesting one tonight. The Celtics have the NBA's second-best, 3-point defense in allowing opponents to shoot just 29.2 percent on 3s. Meanwhile, Portland has relied on a balanced 3-point shooting attack in which they shoot 42.2 percent on 3s which ranks fourth in the league.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Kelly Olynyk vs Robin Lopez: Olynyk, coming off a career-high 11-rebound night against Charlotte, will have his hands full against a much-improved Lopez who comes into tonight's game averaging 11.7 points and 14 rebounds in Portland's last three games.

PLAYER TO WATCH: LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the most talented power forwards in the NBA, and that talent is starting to be on display more consistently. He's averaging a team-best 21.3 points to go with 8.8 rebounds. And his 20.1 field goal attempts per game ranks second in the league only to New York's Carmelo Anthony who chucks up 22 shots per game.

STAT TO TRACK: Keeping Portland's big men off the boards will be Boston's biggest challenge tonight. The Blazers have a rebounding differential of plus-3.2 which ranks fourth in the NBA.