BOSTON -- The son, Austin, was a basketball prodigy. Doc Rivers went to as many of his son's games as his schedule allowed. He remembers seeing Avery Bradley play against his son. He also remembers a certain wide-body from an AAU team out of Columbus, Ohio, a player who dominated the glass in the games against Austin Rivers' team.
That player was Jared Sullinger.
"In one of those games, he had like 27 rebounds and it was crazy watching him,'' Rivers said. "I was upset at all my son's bigs because I actually said, 'How can that fat, slow guy get all those rebounds. There's no way!'
"And now I realize he's not slow and he's actually not fat. He's just round. But he has great feet, he really does. And you don't appreciate that for a while when you watch him. He's quick and he has great feet."
Sullinger reverted to those AAU days of yore on Wednesday night with a glass-eating performance that topped that of any other member of the Boston Celtics this season. (OK, that's faint praise for a team that doesn't rebound, but still.) Sullinger grabbed 16 rebounds, including -- and this is not a misprint -- five off the offensive glass. He also added 12 points, three assists, one steal (he should have had two) and a blocked shot in the Celtics' 87-79 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Sullinger led the Boston reserves, who twice bailed out the lackadaisical starting five to help the Celtics win their fourth straight game and climb above .500 at 18-17. The top three scorers were all from the bench: Jeff Green (14), Jason Terry (13) and Sullinger. Only one starter, Kevin Garnett, hit double figures (10 points) and he didn't get there until the fourth quarter.
"I think it would have been a little easier to swallow if it had been Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett,'' Suns coach Alvin Gentry said. "But at the end of the day, it was their bench that hurt us the most."
The Celtics' starters blew an early lead and fell behind 14-9 out of the blocks. The bench came in and regained the lead. The Celtics' starters allowed the Suns to start a 17-0 run in the third quarter, blowing a 14-point lead. The bench came in and righted the ship. (The Celtics have twice given up 17-0 runs at home this season and still managed to win each game. The other was against the Cavaliers.)
But it was Sullinger's rebounding that had everyone abuzz afterward -- and for good reason. Until Game No. 35 of the 2012-13 season, almost the halfway point, no member of the board-phobic Celtics had grabbed more than 13 rebounds in any game. Sullinger, a rookie and still not even 21, is out to change all that. He has shown he can take advantage of his girth -- OK, he has a big butt and knows how to use it -- and he is undergoing a trial-by-fire in the NBA trenches.
On this night he rebounded, he defended and he even stayed relatively (for him) foul-free, collecting only four in a career-high 34 minutes, 23 seconds. "I'm just learning the game,'' he said.
Watching Sullinger maneuver around the glass is a rare treat, given that his teammates tend to treat a rebound as if it's a radioactive disc. It is so refreshing to see a Celtic actually go and get the friggin' basketball. It is equally refreshing to see a Celtic consider the possibility of actually getting an offensive rebound.
"He's playing like a madman,'' Garnett said. "He's been on a tear lately."
Sullinger is not the tallest guy on the floor, but height doesn't necessarily translate to rebounding prowess. What does? To name a few traits: effort, anticipation, intelligence and timing. Sullinger would add "hunger" to the list. He was the youngest of three growing up, so he had to fight for everything, he says. "You've got to have a go-get-it attitude,'' he said, referring to rebounding, but to his life as well.
Garnett, who at one point in his career was a volume glass-eater, sees all of those traits -- and more -- in Sullinger.
"He has the perfect body for rebounding,'' Garnett said. "He can take the pounding, bump a little bit, and he has great anticipation, comes to the ball and he has great hands. Put that all in the pot and you've got Jared Sullinger and that makes him one of the great up-and-coming rebounders in our game."
That Sullinger is listed at 6-foot-9 is, well, the new math. He's 6-6, maybe 6-7. But Charles Barkley rebounded the basketball -- and he was 6-5. Dennis Rodman is in the Hall of Fame for his rebounding; he was 6-6.
Sullinger isn't in that class yet. But he's also showing he isn't the second coming of Wayman Tisdale, or any number of shortish big men who put up big numbers in college and then did little in the NBA.
"Most of the great rebounders aren't that tall,'' Rivers said. "They're big. They're physical. They have great instincts. They just have a knack for the ball."
As he was listing those characteristics, Rivers then shifted gears to reflect back on all those AAU contests between his son's team and Ohio Red. There were six of them, Rivers said, and Ohio Red won them all. The main reason was this big load from Columbus.
Austin Rivers will be in town next week with the New Orleans Hornets. His father won't mind at all this time if Sullinger dominates the glass. In fact, he'd like nothing better.