HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — If the Boston Celtics are going to compete with the Miami Heat at the top of the Eastern Conference this season, they’re going to need a lift from their bench.
Over the last couple of years, the Celtics’ starting lineup has been just fine. In fact, the lineup that Doc Rivers employed at the end of last season — Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett — outscored its opponents by an amazing 21.1 points per 100 possessions in 342 minutes (including postseason). That was easily the best mark of any lineup that played at least 200 minutes together.
But the Celtics struggled whenever Garnett rested. In the regular season, Boston was outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions when KG was on the bench, and in the playoffs that number rose to an amazing 27.6 points per 100 possessions. Overall, the Celtics actually fell off more offensively than defensively in Garnett’s absence.
So while Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Bradley (once he’s healthy) and Jeff Green help Boston stay afloat when their starters sit, the key to their season just might be rookie Jared Sullinger.
Sullinger, who has a polished post game and rebounding skills that typically translate well to the NBA, was once thought of as a top-five pick. But back and conditioning issues scared some teams off, and the Celtics landed him at No. 21.
If there’s one thing we can take from the first three days of preseason, it’s that Sullinger might have been a steal. In the Celtics’ two games abroad, Sullinger totaled 25 points and 15 rebounds in 44 minutes, shooting 10-for-18 from the field. He moved well without the ball, finished strong and attacked the glass.
Sullinger’s skills are exactly what the Celtics need on the frontline. They’re a jump-shooting team that doesn’t rebound well (last year’s Celtics were the worst offensive rebounding team of the last 35 years) or get to the free throw line. They desperately need a banger.
Of course, we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves, because Sullinger has yet to face another NBA frontline. That won’t happen until Saturday, when the Celtics face the Knicks in Hartford, CT. But it’s fair to assume that Sullinger is ahead of Chris Wilcox and Darko Milicic in the Celtics’ frontline rotation and will be given every opportunity to contribute as a rookie. Doc Rivers even started Sullinger next to Garnett in Sunday’s win in Milan.
Bass is probably still penciled in as Boston’s starter. Still, Rivers does want Sullinger to spend a lot of time on the floor with Garnett, believing that the rookie can be much more effective as the power forward than as the center, as Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald wrote Sunday…
Jared Sullinger’s ability to burrow his way into the paint for 16 points and eight rebounds Friday night, including five offensive boards, highlighted the big rookie’s ability to carve out space with his considerable bulk.
But the Celtics [team stats] coaching staff is also looking for ways to get Sullinger the favorable matchups he will need. As a player with limited lift, some have predicted that Sullinger will have trouble scoring and rebounding against longer defenders.
So coach Doc Rivers is attempting to institute a protection plan. He wants to make sure that Sullinger is never the biggest Celtic on the floor. That way he won’t automatically draw an opposing center in the paint.
That makes a lot of sense, but playing Sullinger only at power forward might be easier said than done, because of Rivers’ unique substitution pattern (five minutes on, five minutes off) for Garnett. If KG is the first Boston starter off the floor in the first quarter, Rivers will have to send someone other than Sullinger into the game. That will likely be Wilcox or Milicic, unless Rivers is willing to play small more than he did last year. And Sullinger would basically have to form a power-forward platoon with Bass.
It will be interesting to see how Rivers’ frontcourt rotation plays out. No matter what, Sullinger could be a big key to the Celtics’ season.