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Sullinger's surge sparks Celtics

BOSTON -- There's a case to be made that Jared Sullinger was Boston's most consistent player over the first half of the 2013-14 season, deterred only briefly at times by some lingering ailments.

And yet there was coach Brad Stevens last week imploring the 21-year-old Sullinger to play beyond his years and grasp the opportunity in front of him. All while Sullinger's father, Satch, a former coach, was scolding his son for his poor body language and attitude as the Celtics navigated a loss-filled month of January.

Sullinger responded with four consecutive double-doubles, each seemingly meatier than the next, culminating Friday night when he posted a career-high 31 points alongside 16 rebounds in Boston's 99-89 triumph over the Sacramento Kings at TD Garden.

Maybe now dad will ease up?

"Nope," said Sullinger. "Not with my father -- no praise that way."

Sullinger probably didn't want a batch of tough love, but it certainly hasn't hurt. Over Boston's current three-game winning streak, Sullinger is averaging 23.7 points on 60 percent shooting with 12.7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks over 35.7 minutes per game.

Sure, Boston has feasted on some of the league's weaker squads during this stretch, but Sullinger put up his gaudy numbers Friday while matched up with Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins.

For the game, Cousins matched Sullinger's output identically -- 31 points, 16 rebounds -- but Sullinger dominated. He connected on 14 of 24 shots, earning just two of his points at the charity stripe.

As Kings coach Mike Malone noted after the game: "[Sullinger] outworked us. I told our guys in the huddle, 'This is not a game plan, this is not coverage, this is effort. I have no defensive game plan or adjustment we can make for rebounding the basketball, but it's just hard work.' ... Tip your hat to Jared Sullinger, he came out here and dominated us tonight."

Let's step back for a moment. Even coming off of back surgery, expectations were high for Sullinger given the encouraging glimpses from his shortened rookie campaign. But Sullinger is most certainly exceeding expectations at the moment, earning the 'dominant' label while facing one of the better young bigs in the league.

And yet his father and his coach will continue to demand more from Sullinger, if only because they know it will drive him.

After Friday's game, Stevens was asked what Sullinger's ceiling is.

"How high does he reach?" quipped Stevens. "He's not there. That's the good news. He's not there [and] he can get better. I think, obviously, 31 and 16 is great. Can you do that every night? No one in the league is doing that every night. But the bottom line is, as he continues to improve, as he continues to get more games underneath his belt, as he continues to get further away from the surgery and gets more freshness and another summer of work and all of those things, I just think that the sky's the limit.

"He's playing at a nice level, there's no question about it, but I really believe that he can be a consistent double-double guy."

For the season, Sullinger is tops on the team in plus/minus at plus-34. What's more, his starting five brethren aren't even close. Brandon Bass is at minus-237 in similar floor time, while Jeff Green is minus-158. Even Rajon Rondo is minus-24 in the infancy of his return to game action.

But there's Sullinger, making good things happen whenever he is on the floor, and remaining unsatisfied by his own exploits.

"I just went out and played my game," Sullinger said after Friday's win. "I've been doing it for the last couple games and just letting everything go. Just showing better body language, according to my father."

On this night, he worked his magic without the benefit of Boston's starting backcourt, with Rondo (general soreness) and Avery Bradley (right ankle) sitting out. The visiting Kings stuck close for three quarters, but Sullinger was on the floor when Boston embarked on a final-frame burst and motored away.

Sullinger had a sequence where he blocked a Ben McLemore layup near the rim, corralled the ping-ponging rebound, and then, when the Sacramento defense fell asleep, stormed to the hoop undeterred for a two-handed slam that helped Boston open as much as an 18-point lead in the final frame (this after the lead went down to 1 earlier in the quarter).

Sullinger passed on trying to project his own NBA ceiling, noting, "Only time will tell. We'll see."

When asked if consistency is what he's striving for, Sullinger answered, "That's what the great players do. They're consistent. They play night in, night out and they give it their all. That's why they're considered great."

But as the questions about his big performance kept coming, Sullinger tried to politely change the subject.

"Everybody is talking about my individual performance, but I'm just glad we got the win," said Sullinger. "I'm always a team player. As a team, we played great."

Sullinger has navigated much of this season with a deep bone bruise in his left hand and a dislocated finger on his right hand. Neither injury has been particularly easy to play through, and Sullinger endured a bit of a shooting slump spanning into the new calendar year.

Now he's playing well and Stevens wants to keep him trending that way.

"I think he feels better every day, and it's like we talked about last week [in seizing this opportunity]," said Stevens. "Fair or unfair, that's who we need him to be. And so that's the opportunity in front of him. He's capable, and I'm not saying that you have to get a double-double every day, but he's darn near capable of doing that. And so I think that the more that we can continue to build off that, the better."