AP Photo/Michael Dwyer
Celtics center Darko Milicic has made a big impact early in the preseason.It took less than 19 minutes of floor time, but Darko Milicic showed on Sunday exactly what he can be for the Boston Celtics this season.
In a game that saw the Celtics put forth a balanced box score -- six players scored in double figures -- Milicic stood out through terrific defense, a focus on rebounding, and an overall court presence that opened things up for his teammates, as Boston ran past Armani Milano, 105-75.
Milicic scored just two points, but hauled in a team-high nine rebounds to go along with a team-high four blocked shots, showing considerable strides on the defensive side of the ball, compared to Boston's first preseason outing in a 97-91 loss to Fenerbahce on Friday.
Friday saw Milicic slow on his rotations, particularly against Fenerbahce's dynamic point guard, Bo McCalebb, but with the overall team defense clamping down on Sunday, Milicic thrived, sliding to the appropriate spots well before Milano could get to the rim in a position to score the ball.
Two of Milicic's blocks came off of help defense, while his other two came in one-to-one coverage, when he allowed his man to commit to his move in the paint before rising up to smack the ball away.
Playing in the second and fourth quarters, Milicic seemed to embrace his hefty 7-foot frame on Sunday, utilizing his considerable size in every area he was able to find success. He used it to block shots, to reach rebounds ahead of the opposition, and he used it on the high post -- the spot on the floor the Celtics have stuck him at most through two preseason games. C's head coach Doc Rivers understands that he has a capable passer in Milicic, which is why he's so willing to line him up at either one of the elbows, where he receives an entry pass and allows the action to develop around him. A quick kickout pass can lead to an open look for a teammate, or allow Milic to re-position himself to set a bulky screen to free up one of Boston's perimeter players.
Screen setting was the quietest part of Milicic's production on Sunday. Boston's equipped with a versatile collection of offensive players, all of which can benefit from having an open lane or open floor space to create their offense. Consider the 5:06mark of the second quarter, when Jason Terry simply ducked behind Milicic's frame to open up enough space to fire off a 3-pointer, or the 4:24 mark when Courtney Lee charged to the basket on the left side only once his man was shaken by a Milicic screen.
Rivers has maintained throughout training camp that the lofty expectations that came with Milicic when he was drafted second overall in 2003 can be thrown out the window. Milicic simply needs to find a role with Boston, and fill it to the best of his abilities. Through two preseason games, that role is taking shape, like bread being kneaded before it enters the oven. He's been active, he's shown a commitment to the Celtics' system, and, perhaps most importantly, he seems to be embracing being part of a team. Boston's bench was nothing but supportive when he came up short on an alley-oop attempt in the second quarter, and he brought his teammates to their feet a few minutes later when he posted on the left block, spun, and nearly completed an up-and-under layup as he got fouled.
Embracing Boston's team culture should only help Milicic make productive strides this season. He won't need to be the Celtics' savior this year. He'll just need to be steady. And through two preseason games, he's done that just fine.