Celtics forward Jared Sullinger pulled down double-digit rebounds for the first time in his young career Friday night in a 95-74 win over the Indiana Pacers at TD Garden.
Sullinger fouled out for the second straight game, but unlike his early exit in Wednesday night’s loss to Memphis, his departure Friday was preceded by 30 minutes of inspired play. The rookie clutched and grabbed his way to 10 rebounds while adding 7 points, 1 assist, and 1 block. More importantly, he brought a physical interior presence to a game characterized by tough defense.
“He was awesome,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “He’s the guy who just likes to be in the trenches and he’s down there working. And he never stops.”
Not stopping has gotten Sullinger into some trouble. While matching and at times exceeding the physical play of Indiana power forward Tyler Hansbrough, Sullinger was faced with a familiar situation: foul trouble. After grabbing a rebound with 6:59 left in the second quarter, Sullinger swung his elbow in the direction of Hansbrough while making an outlet pass and got called for an offensive foul. Sullinger barely grazed Hansbrough, but it’s not a play he’s been able to get away with this year.
“I understand I’ve got to pay my dues,” said Sullinger. “That’s it. Just paying my dues.”
The foul was Sullinger’s second of the game, but Rivers chose to stick with his rookie, who played the entire second quarter after playing almost half of the first. Sullinger had 5 points and seven rebounds in the first half as the Celtics turned a 1-point deficit after the first quarter into a 47-35 halftime lead.
Putting Brandon Bass back in the starting lineup seemed to help Sullinger. Rather than playing alongside Bass, Sullinger was paired with either Jason Collins or Kevin Garnett in the frontcourt. The presence of a bigger player allowed Sullinger to attack the glass without fear of missing his assignment. Garnett’s presence as shooting threat drew a defender away from the basket and allowed Sullinger more room to work.
“We want to stay as big as possible,” Rivers said before the game.
Sullinger makes up for his lack of size by using his backside to carve out space. It can annoy opponents, and it especially annoyed Hansbrough.
With 10:40 left in the fourth quarter, Sullinger picked up another foul boxing out Hansbrough under the basket on a made 3-pointer by Jason Terry. Hansbrough retaliated on the next possession when he tried to brush Sullinger off him as the two ran up the floor. The physical play continued when Garnett came down hard on Hansbrough with his arm, striking Hansbrough in the face and leading to a flagrant-2 foul and an ejection for Garnett.
“You call that physical?” Sullinger said when the game was characterized that way by a reporter. “It’s just playing basketball. That’s what you call playing basketball.”
Said Hansbrough, “I’ve got nothing to say about it.”
The Celtics want Sullinger to play physical, but that adjustment will take time. Sullinger picked up three fouls in the first three minutes Wednesday night. He kept his composure in the first half Friday night but picked up his fourth, fifth, and sixth fouls in the fourth quarter, fouling out with 4:09 remaining.
“I wish we could just see him finish a game,” said Rivers.
Sullinger is averaging 5.3 rebounds on the season. Asked if he thought he could eventually average double-digit rebounds, Sullinger said it was something he needed to build toward. Staying on the court Friday night was a good start.