MILAN — The confidence and comfort level in Jared Sullinger is rapidly increasing, as evidenced by his insertion into the starting lineup Sunday night as the Celtics concluded their European trip against Emporio Armani Milano at the Mediolanum Forum.
It was Sullinger’s second professional game, and there he was, being introduced alongside Pierce, Rondo, Garnett, and Terry. And Sullinger handled the responsibility well, scoring 9 points and adding seven rebounds in the Celtics’ 105-75 win over the Italian League team.
After a rather listless effort Friday in a 97-91 loss to Fenerbahce Ulker, the Celtics came out in front of a sellout crowd of 10,672, many of them Celtics fans, and disposed of their opponent after a first-quarter struggle.
In the final three periods, EA7 converted just 16 of 64 shots for 44 points after going 10 for 19 for 31 points in the first quarter. Celtics coach Doc Rivers wanted to see an overall defensive effort from his club and it delivered, outrebounding EA7, 54-35.
Sullinger, who played 18 minutes, manned the paint against the bigger Ioannis Bourousis, who is listed at 7 feet, 270 pounds. While he struggled with Bourousis’s length at times, Sullinger was relentless and seemingly always around the ball, a skill Rivers has quickly noticed.
“Sullinger is just one of those guys, as you can see, he just finds the ball,” Rivers said. “I don’t know how he gets it. He doesn’t look very athletic. But he has a way, he knows where the ball is going. I thought he was wonderful again. It’s great to see him play with a different unit and have no problems with it.
“He’s just a smart kid, way smarter than his age, and he doesn’t act like a rookie. That’s good for our team.”
There were questions, because Sullinger is undersized for a power forward and not particularly athletic, about whether he would struggle at the NBA level after a fine career at Ohio State. But with solid hands for catching Rajon Rondo bounce passes off the pick and roll and a nice touch around the basket, Sullinger is displaying the ability to maneuver in the paint.
On a couple of occasions he either had his shot blocked or missed a layup and relentlessly chased the ball.
“It’s easy playing with those guys, man,” Sullinger said. “When you have greats who can pass you the ball and can shoot the ball and who can read you, it’s very easy to adapt. I was always that type of person to be able to blend in, do what the team needs me to do best. Today I thought it was very easy with Rondo just getting into the paint.”
Like his burly predecessor at power forward, Glen Davis, Sullinger is almost guaranteed to lead the Celtics in blocks. But perhaps unlike Davis, Sullinger, an AAU superstar who may have been a top-five pick had he left Ohio State following his freshman season, has undeniable confidence.
“If you block my shot, you block my shot, I don’t care,” he said. “It doesn’t change who I am. It doesn’t destroy my character, so I just keep playing basketball. You are going to get your shot blocked in this league. It’s a matter of what your mentality is like. Are you going to keep going or are you going to back off and I’m the kind of guy who is just going to keep going. I don’t care who you are.”
Rondo was blazing in the first quarter, scoring all 17 of his points on 7-for-7 shooting, including a couple of acrobatic layups that thrilled the crowd. The Celtics went on a 17-2 run to begin the second quarter for a 52-35 lead as EA7 Milano struggled from the field, unlike Fenerbahce Ulker Friday night in Istanbul.
Jeff Green, who scored 16 points in his first game in 16 months Friday, had 17 Sunday, including three 3-pointers. The Celtics held EA7 Milano to 33 points in the second half and led by as many as 38.
“We were so unaggressive in the first game, [aggressive] is who we are,” said Rivers. “We had to establish our defense. We showed [the players] that on film and talked about it over and over again. I thought our defense throughout the game was like it should be.”
Rivers said he was pleased with the European excursion, which allowed the team to practice, bond, and also play twice against competitive teams.