BOSTON — Jared Sullinger pinned this defeat on himself, so who are we to argue?
Oh, sure, the rapidly improving young big man nearly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for the Celtics, scoring 10 straight points for his team in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s 100-93 loss to the Grizzlies. He almost single-handedly brought the Celtics back from 15 points down with four minutes left to within three points in the waning seconds, but whatever.
This one was on Sullinger. He said so himself.
Although the officials decided to play the full four quarters, the game was decided in the first quarter, when the Celtics scored a grand total of 13 points. Mike Conley carved up Boston’s defense for 10 points and three assists in the first quarter alone, meaning he directly accounted for three more points than the Celtics managed as a team in the first 12 minutes. The Celtics outscored the Grizzlies 80-73 the rest of the way, so the outcome could have been far different if Boston hadn’t let Conley run amok from the outset.
But while the focus might have fallen on Avery Bradley, Sullinger took responsibility for the opposing point guard’s early explosion.
“I think, as bigs, it’s not our guards’ fault,” Sullinger said. “Most of it was on me. I kept leaving Mike Conley, and Mike Conley’s too good to leave. I should have forced him to pass it to Kosta Koufos or Zach Randolph and try to make them finish over our length. I think that’s mostly on me in the first quarter.”
If the Celtics did have a weak link defensively, it was against dribble penetration, particularly Conley and Jerryd Bayless. Brandon Bass battled with Randolph in the post, getting under the Grizzlies’ hard-to-fluster power forward’s skin with his physical play on both ends. Yet Sullinger, who has held his own against some of the NBA’s best big men in the last two weeks, remains a work in progress as a help defender, something he acknowledged on Wednesday.
If it sounds weird for Sullinger to self-criticize after a monster performance in which he scored 23 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, it’s only because Sullinger has set the bar higher with his recent performance. Two weeks ago, a similar performance in a loss to Portland drew gasps of amazement. Now, with outings like those becoming the norm, any holes in Sullinger’s game are destined to be more greatly scrutinized — especially by himself.
This is what happens when a player establishes himself, as Sullinger suddenly has. Even his coach offered some criticism. Celtics coach Brad Stevens lamented that the 6-foot-9 behemoth needs to shoot more 3-pointers after Sullinger drained two in his fourth-quarter explosion.
“I don’t think he shoots enough of them,” Stevens said. “I’ve said that all year.”
The Celtics seem to believe Sullinger can be a consistent shooter from deep, even if the statistics suggest otherwise. He entered Wednesday shooting 23 percent from downtown on more than two attempts per game, but the biggest adjustment might not be statistical, but mental. Sullinger has been hard-wired to get to the basket and try to score near the hoop. Taking a long jumper when the defense gives it to him is not in his nature — at least, not yet.
“He constantly tells me to take the open shot, and he’s always in my ear about shooting the ball,” Sullinger said of Stevens. “Sometimes I feel comfortable shooting it, sometimes I don’t. I think it’s just a mindset I have to have, that if they’re going to give me that shot, I’ve got to take it.”
These are not the words of a team or a player content with playing for the future. The Celtics may be only 6-11 and their fan base may be advocating for them to play for next year — or beyond — but within the confines of the team, there isn’t much stock taken in promising stepping stones, either individually or team-wise.
A near double-double against Dwight Howard, the league’s best defensive center? A gaudy 19 points and 17 rebounds against an all-time great in Tim Duncan? A near-comeback from 15 points down in the final minutes of a game?
These aren’t things the Celtics celebrate in regards to Sullinger anymore. They are things they — and he — have come to expect. Those things, plus much, much more.