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Jared Sullinger shoots a jumper over Houston's Patrick Patterson.BOSTON -- There might come a time later in this Celtics season when Jared Sullinger's rookie status needs to come back into sharper focus.
But for now, there's little mention of the R-word around Sullinger, unless it's in the context of optimism over what could be his very bright NBA future, given his level of consistent productivity over the last several weeks.
Sullinger's fruitful first-year campaign continued Friday night, as he registered his third double-double of the season (and second in as many outings) with 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting to go along with a team-high 11 rebounds in 27 minutes in Boston's 103-91 victory over the Houston Rockets.
Only two parts of Sullinger's game on Friday suggested a young player was on the floor: his tenacious pursuit of the ball and his six personal fouls. Everything else -- his decision-making, passing out of double-teams, knowing where to position himself -- was decidedly veteran in nature.
His fouls on Friday weren't registered with enough frequency to detract from his overall production, and he even light-heartedly jabbed at his tendency to foul, which was a cause of considerable frustration for him as recently as three weeks ago.
"As long as we’re winning I’m happy. Happy to hack," Sullinger joked. "No biggie."
The fouls took a back seat to the rest of his stat line, which included playing a team-high 18:17 in the first half and finishing with 14 points and eight rebounds. He registered eight points and five rebounds in the second quarter alone, playing all 12 minutes as Boston's bench picked up the slack and helped the C's open up 13-point leads on two occasions.
Three of Sullinger's five rebounds in the second quarter came on the offensive end, two of which resulted in strong putbacks in traffic. He added a fading jumper off the glass early in the quarter, and a right-side layup off of a Jason Terry feed with less than three minutes remaining.
"It’s coming easier," Sullinger admitted. "Obviously, it’s been 36 games, so I should be used to the NBA by now. It’s just me and my comfort zone right now."
Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers: "He’s playing better, so the coach has more confidence in him. That’s [No.] 1. I said it early in the year, when he’s on the floor, he does the right stuff. And a lot of stuff you don’t see, just being able to throw him the ball. How many rookies have we ever thrown the ball to at the top of the circle, and he decides which way he wants to go with it? He just has a great calm about him. He helps us. Especially with that second unit, because you gotta always have a passing big in our offense, and he gives us that extra passing big."
Rivers isn't the only one showing more confidence in Sullinger. While they still might hand him some of the typical rookie duties off the floor, Sullinger's teammates have come to expect a veteran presence from him on the court.
"Yeah, he has a great IQ, he's understanding the system. It seems like he's always in the right place at the right time," said Paul Pierce. "His instincts for the ball are really great, he has great hands, and I think he's getting more and more confidence as the season goes on, as he continues to play well, as he continues to get more minutes, and he's looking like a veteran out there."
Sullinger keeps chalking up his recent production -- he's averaged 10.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over his last five games -- to simply playing hard. But he deserves credit for adapting his game. Whereas he was used to being a primary option in high school and college, he's found an early niche in the NBA for producing without his number being called.
Sometimes it's an offensive rebound and a putback. Other times it's turning what appears to be a whole lot of nothing into a considerable something. On one play in the first half on Friday, Sullinger received a wobbly pass just outside of the right box that he had to tip from one hand to the other just to secure the ball before advancing in for a strong layup on the right side.
"I think at first he was used to like one speed and kind of being able to dominate, and on this level, multiple people can dominate him, and I think he's done a great job of making the adjustments and [he's a] very smart kid, man," said Kevin Garnett. "The thing with him, I always tell him, just, 'Repetitive. Consistency. Be consistent with what you're doing.' And he's been doing that. I'm glad to see him do well, man."