BOSTON — The stated goal since training camp has been to get Jared Sullinger into playing shape, so maybe it’s best that the Celtics avoided saying they were focused on “feeding” the second-year big man on Friday.
Feeding Sullinger is precisely what they did, however, encouraging his box score gluttony as their best chance to steal a win against the Trail Blazers.
“Yeah, especially when he got it going,” Courtney Lee said. “Anybody on this team, when he’s got it going, that’s the smart thing to do: find the hot hand and keep going to him. That’s what we did. Sully’s a big post presence and he stretches the floor when he was able to knock down some threes, so we were looking for him.”
In his first game back from a one-game absence due to a bone bruise in his right knee, Sullinger played his best game of the season. He scored a career-best 26 points, hauled in eight rebounds and was whistled for only two personal fouls in more than 36 minutes. Four turnovers were all that prevented Sullinger from having a perfect night.
It was a nice comeback from a brief setback for Sullinger, but he was not exactly billowing with pride afterward.
“It feels great, but at the same time, we lost,” Sullinger said, “so that takes feeling great to [feeling] not so awesome.”
Sullinger’s breakout game actually only confirmed what the eye test and non-traditional statistics have suggested for a while. He is a plus-3.8 for the season, the highest of any Celtics regular, and only Vitor Faverani surpasses him in overall or defensive rebounding percentage. Sullinger also has the team’s highest offensive efficiency among regulars with 105.7 points generated per 100 possessions.
Despite all of Sullinger’s impressive statistics on Friday, though, the Blazers recorded a convincing 109-96 win and LaMarcus Aldridge trumped Sullinger’s performance with another ho-hum, typical night for the NBA’s most underrated power forward. Aldridge used his superior length against Brandon Bass and capitalized on Kelly Olynyk‘s foul trouble to finish with 27 points and 12 rebounds while barely breaking a sweat.
The ease with which Aldridge did what Sullinger did, only better, may have explained why Sullinger and Celtics coach Brad Stevens sounded so underwhelmed with the Ohio State product’s career night.
“I thought he played well,” Stevens said. “Obviously, he turned it over a few more times than he usually does, but he shot the ball well. He posted. We talked about it before the game, he’s probably our best post player, and we’ve got to figure out a way to utilize everybody better.”
Sullinger even seemed to think he left some points on the floor due to playing his way back into shape after back surgery. By that estimation, he would have been well over 30 points and the final score at least might have been a bit closer.
“There’s a lot of shots out there that I have total control over,” Sullinger said. “That’s definitely conditioning. I’ll be back on the arc trainer [Saturday] before the game, like always.”
If Sullinger wants a model for his ongoing conditioning, he will get an up-close look at one on Saturday. Kevin Love, who was once maligned for being groundbound and unathletic just like Sullinger, could be matched up with Sullinger when the Celtics visit the Timberwolves. Love has transformed his body, added a 3-point shot and remained just as dominant a rebounder, three things Sullinger hopes to accomplish. The Love-Sullinger matchup could serve as a “before” and “after” shot in the infomercial for the Beast-o-Matic, the as-seen-on-TV invention for creating a Most Valuable Player-caliber power forward.
When presented with that possibility, Sullinger embraced the comparison. He could shoot for goals that are a lot worse than being the next Love, after all.