Doc Rivers perhaps got carried away after a significant victory over the Knicks Monday night, gushing about the play of Jared Sullinger, who had just sparked the Celtics with his bullish rebounding and defense against Tyson Chandler.
“He’s not going anywhere,” remarked Rivers, presumably alluding to trade rumors that have the Celtics including Sullinger in a deal for an impact big man.
Asked about that statement, the Celtics coach said he was referring to Sullinger’s refusal to back away from any challenge. But Rivers added that he hoped Sullinger would stay in Boston for the long run.
The rookie forward may have cemented his status as a Celtic Wednesday night, nabbing a career-high 16 rebounds along with 12 points as the reserves carried Boston to an 87-79 win over the Phoenix Suns at TD Garden.
The bench scored 47 points and 24 rebounds as the Celtics blew a 12-point halftime lead only to rally late in the third and pull away in the fourth. Only one starter scored in double figures – Kevin Garnett with 10 points — as the Celtics won for the fourth straight time and forged above .500.
Jeff Green led the Celtics with 14 points, including back-to-back dunks that ignited the crowd in the second quarter. It was the one-year anniversary of Green’s surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, and the milestone wasn’t lost on him. Green doesn’t display much emotion, except when he is dunking on an opponent, but Wednesday was an exception.
“I can’t put into words how I feel,” he said. “It’s a wonderful day. I had a good game. I’m just glad to be here man. I just reflect a lot about what I’ve been through. I don’t cry, but it was [emotional]. A year ago, I had heart surgery. When I think about laying in the bed, when I woke up from it, to where I’m at now, it’s a big deal to me.”
The reserves outplayed the starters and it reflected in their minutes. Paul Pierce, who finished with a season-low 7 points, played 24 minutes, and Avery Bradley played just 18:21. Sullinger, Green, and Jason Terry helped the Celtics during rallies in the second and fourth quarters.
Sullinger grabbed seven rebounds in the final quarter as the Celtics prevailed by holding the Suns to 3-for-18 shooting. Battling strongman Marcin Gortat and crafty Luis Scola, Sullinger was able to use his size and skill to gather key boards.
On Monday he dealt with a night of trash talking and intimidation tactics from Chandler, so Wednesday night’s task was routine.
“You’ve got to have a ‘go get it’ attitude when it comes to rebounding, and that’s what I have,” Sullinger said. “I don’t give a reaction [to trash talk]. You laugh. It goes in one ear and out the other. One of my roles is being a nagging rookie, so I am just working on it every day.”
The bench’s success is what Rivers envisioned during training camp. Because of Bradley’s injury, and ineffectiveness, roles were adjusted, and newcomers took time meshing into his philosophy while others underachieved.
“I just thought their energy, in both halves . . . the starters started out poorly, the bench came in and got us the lead,” Rivers said. “Jared was terrific with his rebounding and just all the little things he does out there, but I thought Courtney [Lee], I thought Jet [Terry], Jeff, all those guys, they’re playing very well together. So that’s nice when you can have a night where your starters aren’t great and your bench wins the game for you.”
A 53-41 halftime lead against a team that has struggled mightily on the road seemed the recipe for a second-half breather, but the Celtics again squandered prosperity after Garnett opened the second half with a jumper that extended the lead to 14.
The Suns countered with a 17-0 run as the Celtics went 5:59 without scoring. Phoenix increased its defensive pressure, capitalized on a team that began coasting, and pounded the ball inside. Gortat, involved in trade speculation, including some involving the Celtics, scored 6 points during the surge.
Rajon Rondo, back from a one-game suspension, snapped the skid with a jumper and Pierce scored his lone points of the second half with a layup as the Celtics regained the lead for good. Boston shot 31.6 percent in the third and displayed the type of lackadaisical play that plagued it through December.
But Sullinger and Green led a fourth-quarter run that eliminated any suspense.
The Celtics began with an 11-2 push as Green finished with a streaking dunk for a 78-66 lead. The Suns cut it to 6, but Sullinger followed with a game-sealing layup, capping an impressive night.
“Obviously his timing, body positioning, he has the perfect body for rebounding,” Garnett said. “He can take the pounding and bump a little bit and he has great anticipation when it comes to the ball, and he has great hands. Put all that in the pot, you got Jared Sullinger, that’s what makes him great.
“I think Doc’s starting to understand the rotation he’s going with, and I think the rotation we are going with, he’s confident in it, and everybody kind of knows their niche right now.”