The rise of Greg Stiemsma
Celtics rookie answers vets' ribbing with surprisingly strong play of late
Most of the Boston Celtics players were on the floor at Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena for a morning shootaround before last week's matchup with the Miami Heat when Ray Allen spotted a pack of reporters encircling a player on the opposite sideline late in the media session.
Allen looked around at the personnel on the floor, offered a confused look, and asked a teammate who could possibly be in the crowd. Both turned and craned their necks to see who was sitting in front of all the microphones. Their reactions said it all.
As if the veterans needed another reason to get on the case of rookie center Greg Stiemsma. Nursing a bone bruise in his right foot -- the most serious of a smorgasbord of maladies that includes a case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, a jammed right thumb and a right pinkie finger that lost a small chunk when he blocked a shot and hit the backboard -- Stiemsma hadn't participated in a shootaround in about a month.
Naturally, the veterans have given him plenty of grief about his lack of participation.
"A little bit, especially being a rookie," Stiemsma said with his familiar smile. "It's kind of a veteran excuse, to just play in the games."
A lack of big men on the Celtics' roster has opened the door for Stiemsma in his first NBA campaign, and he's not going to let injuries prevent him from taking advantage. Even though he hobbled off most nights in March wearing a cumbersome black walking boot on his right foot, it allowed him to grind through the game-heavy schedule and establish himself as a key rotation player on the Boston bench.
More impressively, Stiemsma just keeps improving. Even without practices or being able to take part in shootarounds, he's been able to develop his game -- particularly on the defensive end, where he was a bit of a liability early in the season.
Now his rotations are crisper, his pick-and-roll play is improving, and he's using his shot-blocking talents to become an impact player on that end of the court.
On Sunday night in Charlotte, with newly minted Eastern Conference Player of the Week Kevin Garnett getting a day of rest at the tail end of a back-to-back-to-back, Stiemsma jumped into the starting lineup and responded by filling up his stat line to the tune of 8 points (on 4-of-4 shooting), 6 blocked shots (matching his career high), 5 rebounds, 4 steals (also matching a career high), and an assist over 27:57.
On his first shift Sunday, Stiemsma blocked three shots and threw down an alley-oop. He even managed to avoid those pesky whistles in the first half, only to be tagged with four fouls in a span of 3:37 in the third quarter to take some of the momentum out of his night.
Even that did little to temper his coach's praise.
"Greg, defensively, he's a force," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "He's a great shot-blocker. I don't think the officials know that yet."
Rivers thought Stiemsma got some bad whistles and that block number could have been even higher. Stiemsma is 15th in the league with 1.56 blocks per game, but his 5.38 blocks per 48 minutes is second only to Oklahoma City Thunder shot-block king Serge Ibaka (3.63 per game, 6.44 per 48 minutes).
Heck, Stiemsma's 81 total blocks are only four behind NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate Tyson Chandler, who has played six more games and a whopping 1,200 more minutes this season.
Now if Stiemsma could just avoid those whistles.
"It's tough at times," he admitted. "Early in my career, it might have been a little different of a story, I might not have been able to handle it as well. But it's part of the game. I've yet to see a referee change a call yet, so once it's made, I gotta deal with it, and go from there.
"I'm just trying to be in the right position a little earlier. Try to almost stay out of the way at times. You can't stop being aggressive, so that's what I'm trying to do -- block shots, rebounds, stuff like that."
Stiemsma is happy to report that the tide might slowly be changing and not all of the whistles are going against him -- heck, Rivers jokes how Stiemsma has been tagged with fouls for members of the Big Three when he just happens to be in the same vicinity.
"There's actually been a couple times where the whistle has blown, and I thought it was going to be on me, and [recently], it actually got called on somebody else," said Stiemsma, before cracking, "Otherwise, I probably would have fouled out more times."
It's all a part of adapting to NBA life. Fortunately, the perks typically outweigh the negatives. When the Celtics had an off day in Miami last week, Stiemsma tagged along with strength and conditioning coach Bryan Doo to the set of USA Network's "Burn Notice." Turns out that actor Jeffrey Donovan (an Amesbury native) is a big Celtics fan, and Stiemsma got to mingle with the cast and crew during filming of an episode.
Stiemsma tried to sneak into a hospital scene as an extra, but his 7-foot frame made it impossible for him to blend into the scenery. Maybe he'll give the acting thing another chance during the offseason.
Or maybe Allen could hook him up with some of his Hollywood friends. Nah, he'd probably get the same reaction.
Despite the friendly ribbing from teammates, Stiemsma made it clear that there's no time to lounge during shootarounds. The condensed schedule has left Boston cramming much of its practice-caliber work into the morning shootarounds, including game preparation, so Stiemsma watches with the goal of carrying over what he sees to game nights.
"I think that's what has kind of helped me this whole season, having to be ready to go in whenever my number has been called," said Stiemsma. "Shootaround, it might seem kind of light at times, but we're actually getting stuff done, going over the stuff we need to do. We're game-planning stuff that I need to be aware of. There's not a lot of time to mess around on the sidelines; I have to be into the shootaround mentally as much as I can be physically."
It's fair to wonder where the Celtics would be without Stiemsma this season. For all the grief, the veterans sure are glad to have him along for the ride.