It’s getting a little old now, but “Jared Sullinger plays well despite Celtics’ loss” is becoming the battle cry of the 2013-14 Celtics.
Once again, Sullinger played well despite a Celtics loss on Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs. For more than a half, the Celtics (4-9) played the Spurs (10-1) tight and had a chance to cut the deficit to three points as late as the middle of the third quarter, But in the end, the Spurs did what they usually do and clamped down defensively, while the Celtics did what they usually do and faded away.
Sullinger finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds, finally breaking through on the double-double he has flirted with all season long. Sullinger now has at least 10 points and eight rebounds in four of his last six games, and his field goal percentage is inching up toward 50 percent.
As nice as Sullinger’s development is for the Celtics, the true measure of a good player is his ability to get wins for his team. Sullinger clearly understands that, which is why he hasn’t been too receptive lately to fans or TV reporters telling him he’s had some good games. Every game is a bad one for Sullinger if it comes in a loss.
Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford, Courtney Lee and Phil Pressey don’t have it easy right now. The Celtics’ four main guards are doing their darndest to contain opposing ballhandlers, but they’re having a tough time without consistent help from their big men.
Vitor Faverani can block shots, Sullinger can rebound and appears to be improving defensively and Brandon Bass still works his tail off, but the Celtics’ back-line defense was a mess against the Spurs. It’s been that way against a number of teams, and it’s often left the guards hung out to dry. A new issue arose in the first half on Wednesday, when Pressey and Lee each got blindsided by backscreens and collided hard with a pick-setting Spur. That is an indication that Sullinger, who was the de facto center at the time, was not calling out screens.
No one is asking the Celtics to be championship-caliber or to lock down every opponent on every possession, but calling out screens is a fundamental every player learns as a youth — especially a coach’s kid like Sullinger. For all the great things Sullinger did on Wednesday, those lapses could be some of the minor fixes that help Sullinger become a truly excellent player.
There’s no advanced statistic to prove the Celtics had more bounce in their step on Wednesday than they did on Tuesday, but to the naked eye, it was unmistakable. Maybe it was just because they weren’t down by 22 points from the get-go, but the Celtics actually seemed to have some fight in them against the Spurs, which they didn’t have against the Rockets.
“We played differently,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “The team that played [Wednesday] could be a really fun group to build with and that’s what you take away from here.”
Stevens probably shouldn’t count on that fun beginning soon. The Pacers, fresh off a win over the reeling Knicks, make a pit stop in Boston on Monday. If there are any flaws left the Spurs did not reveal, the Pacers likely will find them.