Print and Go Back ESPN.com: ESPNBoston [Print without images]

Thursday, January 3, 2013
Sullinger a silver lining

By Greg Payne
ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Ask Kevin Garnett or Rajon Rondo about the Celtics' losing ways this season, and they'll tell you what you expect to hear: It stinks, it's frustrating, and maybe even a little disturbing given the franchise's success in recent seasons.

Rondo admitted before Thursday's practice that he's "a sore loser" and made it clear the team's four-game losing streak and overall 14-17 record aren't sitting well with him. When asked if any of his teammates fall into the sore loser category with him, Rondo said he didn't want to pass judgment on anyone else. But one guy he can count on being in that corner with him is rookie Jared Sullinger.

Sullinger's stock has steadily risen all season, and it's becoming more and more evident that head coach Doc Rivers and the rest of the team are showing more faith in their first-year big man. In Wednesday's 93-83 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Sullinger was on pace to play the entire fourth quarter, alongside the likes of Garnett, Rondo, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry, until he fouled out with 1:26 to play.

Jared Sullinger
Sullinger, grabbing a rebound against Memphis Grizzlies center Hamed Haddadi on Wednesday, was on pace to play the entire fourth quarter before he fouled out.

One would think the fourth-quarter assignment -- no small task for a rookie in this Celtics era -- would have boosted Sullinger's spirits. But after the game, he said the loss was the only thing on his mind.

"It's pretty cool [playing down the stretch], but we lost, so it doesn't really matter," Sullinger said. "But, gaining [Rivers'] trust is kind of helping my comfort level out there on the floor. But, at the same time, we lost, so it doesn't really mean anything."

Sullinger's point is well-taken, but the fact that his role continues to blossom isn't an accident. Sullinger finished Wednesday's game with two points on 1-of-6 shooting and five rebounds, but it was his effort, plain and simple, that kept him on the floor and aided a furious Celtics rally that came up just short in the final minutes. He pulled down three of his five boards in the fourth quarter, one coming on the offensive end, and he was active defensively alongside Garnett.

The Celtics have been searching for silver linings in the midst of their inconsistent play all season, and Sullinger might have found a personal one: He's not used to losing, and the energy he's shown is all part of an effort to help turn the team around. He said after Wednesday's loss that he had never lost consecutive games in his basketball career prior to this season.

"I think this is the first time in my career losing two in a row. I've never lost two in a row," said Sullinger, perhaps momentarily forgetting that the Celtics have lost two or more games four times this season already. "I'm so not used to it. But I think that's what's driving me to play harder and harder every game, just trying to help the team win in any aspects of the game.

"I'm learning how to let go of losses. That's one thing I'm learning how to do that, and understanding that every day is a new day to get better. So, I'm not holding onto the past. If this slide helped me do anything, it's learning how to let go."

What he shouldn't let go of, though, is the way he's been playing the last week and a half. He was arguably the only positive in an avalanche of negatives over the final three games of Boston's recent road trip, and he proved again Wednesday that a subpar shooting night can be overcome with inspired play.

"I'm just playing hard, that's all. I'm the youngest on the team, so why not play hard every game?" Sullinger said. "I'm not going to save my legs because I'm not playing long minutes like Rondo. I'm only playing about 20, 25 minutes, so you might as well play hard the whole time you're out there on the floor."

Added Garnett after Wednesday's loss: "Jared's earned Doc's trust, the trust of his teammates, and others. I think all the playing time that he's getting he's definitely earned. He's giving us a lift, man. He's coming in, rebounding like a monster, doing the things that we know him to be, and he's getting better, so that's a good sign for us."

Rivers has been searching all season for a firmer big-man rotation, and while injuries and inconsistent play from key players have hampered that process, Sullinger has been one guy Rivers hasn't been afraid to consistently turn to. Rivers said he'd like to get Sullinger even more minutes, but that aim has been stunted by the rash of fouls Sullinger has been accruing. While some have been earned, it's becoming clearer with each game that Sullinger is drawing a number of rookie calls from officials. Rivers, for one, is losing his patience with that.

"Jared's been phenomenal, I just wish he could play longer," Rivers said Wednesday. "Thank you, I'm not going to say anything more about that."

He touched on it again before practice on Thursday: "[Sullinger's] been great. I think he is just a smart player, he does so many things well for us. You can make a lot of cases for him playing a lot more minutes. We gotta tell other people we would like him to play more minutes."

Sullinger wouldn't oppose more minutes (officials be willing), particularly if his sustained effort would translate to higher dividends in the Celtics' win column. After all, Sullinger's not used to his teams losing, and he'll play as hard as he can to try and help change that.