BOSTON — One of the harder tricks to do this season has been to make Jared Sullinger look ordinary. Yet the Celtics’ last five opponents have made him look like just that.
Sullinger battled to 13 points and 11 rebounds in the Celtics’ 95-92 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday, and every basket and board was hard-earned. The second-year big man needed 17 shots and seven free throw attempts to get those 13 points, while committing four fouls and three turnovers in the process.
It wasn’t the prettiest performance by a player who has gotten accustomed to more efficient, if not always more attractive, showings.
“I was getting pretty good looks,” Sullinger said. “I just missed them.”
Sullinger would not fall back on the built-in excuse concerning the bruised bone in his left hand. He discarded the padded glove, explaining that “I still felt the pain, so I might as well just feel it all the way.” The pain didn’t prevent him from tracking down nine offensive rebounds, although he did say it made it harder for him to box out, which could have contributed to him tallying only two defensive rebounds. (Offensive rebounding usually is less about boxing out and more about finding holes or angles to pursue the rebound, since offensive players aren’t typically in prime rebounding position.)
He also smartly backed off from questions about the officiating. Despite those seven free throw attempts — all of which he made — Sullinger sustained a ton of contact in the paint in the second half, most of it going by without a whistle.
Still, Sullinger’s biggest problem didn’t appear to be his hand or the referees. Instead, the length of Anthony Davis, Alexis Ajinca and to a lesser extent Greg Stiemsma simply seemed to give Sullinger difficulty, just as Roy Hibbert, Anderson Varejao and Joakim Noah have in recent games. Sullinger, for all his assets, was not blessed with the longest wingspan or the highest vertical, so he can have trouble with opposing players who do have those traits.
“Those guys are long, really long,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And we’ve run into a string of teams that have that length on the interior. These guys are mobile and able to keep him in front and when they do, he’s got to finish over that length. That’s not easy.”
Sullinger’s stats over the last five games help to tell the story. He’s averaging 8.0 points on 27.5 percent shooting over that span, compared to 13.4 points on 44.6 percent shooting for the season. The only answer for Sullinger — assuming he doesn’t go through a growth spurt between now and tip-off Sunday — is to continue to use the body he does have in ways to nullify his opponent’s length advantage.
“Just keep a body on them, honestly,” Sullinger said. “Just keep a body on them and try to use angles. That’s pretty much what I tried to do [Friday].”
Austin Rivers never saw the court against the Celtics. Check that, he did see the court — from a front-row seat on the bench.
The son of former Celtics coach Doc Rivers has not turned out to be the player some envisioned when he left Duke after just one year. The No. 10 pick in the 2012 NBA draft is averaging just 12 minutes per game and has an unsightly .385 field goal percentage for the Pelicans, while fellow first-round pick Davis has thrived.
Monty Williams, who is familiar with Rivers as a result of playing for his father with the Orlando Magic, is staying patient, even if his explanations defy reality.
“Just like any young guys, just keep working, try to find his niche in the NBA,” Williams said of his advice to the second-year pro. “I think he gets a bad rap because everybody wants him to be a world-changer right away. He’s right where most young guys are at this point.”
With all due respect to Williams, nobody of consequence really expected Rivers to be a “world-changer” right away. Now, especially, observers are merely looking for signs that Rivers can be a halfway productive NBA player and not a net minus when he is on the court. So far, he hasn’t shown reason for hope even in those modest goals.