BOSTON — Doc Rivers does not play coy often. Owing to his experience as a television analyst, the Celtics coach has a knack for talking in an insightful and expansive way on any number of topics, basketball-related or otherwise.
Rivers has had to bite his tongue on one topic this season, though. When the discussion turns to Jared Sullinger and the rookie’s persistent foul trouble, Rivers backs away.
“He’s been great,” Rivers said earlier this season. “I just wish I could play him longer.”
That is Rivers’ way of taking a jab at the tough calls laid upon Sullinger while avoiding the fine the league levies for criticizing officials. Sullinger has fouled out of four games in the last two weeks, making it pretty obvious that the first-round draft pick out of Ohio State is getting the infamous rookie treatment from the referees.
Jeff Green believes that is just fine.
“He’s a rookie, he don’t deserve no calls,” Green said, loudly enough so he could be heard several feet away, where Sullinger was standing. “He’s got to play through them. It’s going to make him better. There’s nothing you can do about it. You’re not going to change it. When the call’s made, it’s made.”
Sullinger has impressed the Celtics’ veteran players with his professionalism on the court, and on the officiating topic, he has proven just as savvy. The rookie backs away from openly complaining about the officials, although his frustration may contribute to him being more curt with reporters after certain games. During games, he appears to have perfected the David Robinson-esque open-palmed expression of disbelief after the most egregious missed calls.
But showing again that he is wise beyond his years for a 20-year-old, Sullinger has taken a philosophical stance toward his growing foul total.
“I always remind myself that I was the youngest of three,” he said. “When you’re the youngest of three, you really don’t get what you want when [older siblings] are inside the household. I kind of look at it like that.”
“Everybody has to pay their dues,” he added.
The fact that Sullinger is playing at all must cause a few opposing teams’ executives to grind their teeth. The little “red flag” the league put out about Sullinger’s supposedly balky back prior to last June’s draft caused the 6-foot-9, 280-pound forward to fall all the way to Boston at No. 21 in the first round. More than a third of the way through his first season, Sullinger has played in every game, and his health has never been a public concern. Rivers occasionally thanks Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge — jokingly — for leaking the red flag to other teams.
In a way, the worries over Sullinger’s physical condition heading into the draft were fitting. Rivers admitted that he was guilty of questioning Sullinger’s physique and athleticism when Sullinger was just a sophomore in high school, outworking every big man on Rivers’ son’s AAU team.
“One of those games, he had like 27 rebounds,” Rivers said. “It was crazy watching him. I was upset at all my son’s bigs, because I said, ‘How can that fat, slow guy get all these rebounds? Now, I realize he’s not slow and he’s actually not fat. He’s just round.”
Rivers then happily expounded on the many shapes and sizes of some of the game’s great rebounders. From the long and thin Dennis Rodman to the similarly round and relentless Charles Barkley, known as “Boy Gorge” at Auburn, rebounders have come in a variety of packages. The only common threads, Rivers noted, were great hands, good feet and a “knack for the ball.”
It was a classic Rivers answer, filling reporter’s notebooks with useful details without straying into a sea of non sequiturs. He is happy to talk about his rookie forward, who has almost single-handedly solved the Celtics’ shortcomings on the glass.
Just do not expect either of them to make a peep about the officials. Sullinger will battle for a rebound, but he and his coach know that some battles cannot be won.