NEW YORK — Christmas at the Barclays Center wasn’t a high-wattage, celebrity-filled affair. No Jay-Z. No Beyonce. In fact, as the NBA tipped off a five-game holiday schedule, a handful of the see-and-be-seen courtside seats remained empty at the Celtics-Nets contest. It was, instead, an Atlantic Division rivalry that featured big bodies over big names.
The biggest body that left the biggest impression? Celtics rookie Jared Sullinger.
“Jared was wonderful,” said coach Doc Rivers. “He’s such a smart player. When you watch him, you don’t see rookie. You just see a big fat guy playing basketball.”
The 6-foot-9-inch, 260-pound Sullinger tied his season high with 16 points (6-for-7 shooting) and added 7 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, and a block. Much of his scoring and rebounding and both assists came in the first half, helping to push the Celtics to a 56-42 lead at the break.
He opened with a dunk, then tossed in a hook shot, a pair of layups, a 14-footer, a 19-footer, and a smattering of free throws (4 for 6 from the line).
Perhaps most significant, the foul-prone power forward stayed out of trouble until the fourth quarter, when he picked up three of his five personals, including a flagrant-1 for preventing a Gerald Wallace layup with a two-armed takedown.
Early in the game, there was a Sullinger foul that Rivers saw as a legitimate offensive rebound.
“I think eventually that will be a rebound,” said the coach.
As Sullinger learns the NBA game and NBA officials learn his game, the foul situation will mark inflection points on his learning curve. He leads the team with 79 personal fouls, though he averages only 17.7 minutes per game (eighth on the team). The hope is that Sullinger will begin to incur fewer fouls, spend more time on the court, and develop consistency in other areas of his game.
“He’s going to get fouls,” said Rivers. “He’s a rookie. When you can go [with a call against] Kevin [Garnett] or Jared, I’ve got a feeling that Jared is going to get it.
“I think he’s not getting as frustrated anymore. We keep telling him to play through it. It’s going to happen, just play through it.”
Despite some big numbers against the Nets, Sullinger wasn’t overly impressed with his performance.
“Just because I have more stats doesn’t mean it was my best game,” he said. “There were a couple games where I did a little bit more defensively.
“I played OK. I just came out and played hard. I wasn’t worried about stats. If you play hard and give your all to a team, things will come back to you.
“I was just playing hard, just trying to find an open spot. It just happened like that.”
Still, Rivers, Paul Pierce, and others praised Sullinger.
“He’s a high IQ player,” said Pierce (8 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds). “He understands the position and takes advantage of the opportunities.
“He’s a physical player, too, when he gets the ball underneath. He uses his body really well. He draws a lot of contact.
“We’re going to need him to continue to play that way. Hopefully, he starts developing some consistency on this road trip.”
Added Rivers, “Jared gets his [points] with IQ. I didn’t run one play for Jared tonight. He just knows where to go when they’re trapping all over the floor, which they were doing. Jared made a living of finding the open spots.
“You can coach that as much as you want, but you’ve got to have a great feel. You’ve got to know where to go, when to go. Jared just has a great feel with his timing.”
It also appears that Sullinger is getting a better feel for the officials. He said the first 30 seconds on defense are crucial when it comes to sizing up how games will be called. During those precious seconds, he sees whether he can bump someone — whether a referee tells him to knock it off or remains silent.
That said, Sullinger took the floor at the Barclays Center less worried about officiating and more determined, as he said, “to play my game.”
The result was a memorable first Christmas away from his Columbus, Ohio, home. Almost as memorable as his favorite Christmas, when he was 4 years old and his gifts included a basketball hoop and Nerf football.
“My gift now is just being able to live my dream,” said Sullinger. “I have a dream of playing in the NBA and I’m living it. That’s the best gift I have.”
Rivers might have other gifts in mind: friendlier officiating, and more respect for him and his play.
“I hope a lot of people were at home watching the game, saying, ‘Man, he can play,’ ” said Rivers.
Asked if he was talking about officials, Rivers laughed and quickly added, “No, I said, ‘people.’ ”
If people didn’t pay attention to Sullinger during his performance against the Nets, it seems only a matter of time before they start.