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Rookie Jared Sullinger comes up big for Celtics

Celtics rookie forward Jared Sullinger is a one-man defensive wall against the 76ers.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Celtics rookie forward Jared Sullinger is a one-man defensive wall against the 76ers.

Jared Sullinger’s 363 minutes in the NBA is a far cry from Kevin Garnett’s approximately 51,000, regular season and playoffs. So on the second night of a back-to-back, a night when 76ers coach Doug Collins made an issue of those minutes, Sullinger knew he had no excuses.

He’s a rookie. His legs were fresh.

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“I’m young,” Sullinger said. “I have no excuse to be tired.”

It was a night when the Celtics’ veterans provided enough scoring to win the game, but not enough rebounds, the combination of Garnett and Jeff Green putting up 35 points but zero boards. Sullinger picked up the slack in that area, as the Celtics dominated Philadelphia for much of a 92-79 win Saturday night at TD Garden.

The Ohio State product collected nine rebounds (three offensive) to tie Rajon Rondo for the team lead, four of them coming in his 10-plus minutes of play in the fourth quarter. It was the second-biggest rebounding performance of his young career, after Sullinger had 11 against Toronto on Nov. 17.

“He was good,” said coach Doc Rivers. “He rebounds. I don’t know what he has in his hands, but it’s amazing. When the ball touches his hands, for the most part, it sticks. Maybe he has Stick ’em, I don’t know. He’s just a terrific rebounder.”

Sullinger added 7 points on 3-for-8 shooting and a made free throw.

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“I think I did all right,” Sullinger said. “I could have done a bit better. Should have got the one at the end, turned out to be a fast-break layup. That always happens like that, sometimes, but it is what it is.”

He wasn’t unhappy because he missed out on that 10th rebound. No, he was unhappy because of what the missed rebound led to, even in a game that was all but over at that point.

As Sullinger said, “My hustle play led into a leak-out layup.”

That’s not what he wants, not when the Celtics are desperately trying to string wins together and when he’s trying to impress Rivers and the coaching staff.

As a group, the Celtics had 32 rebounds to the 76ers’ 36, and 18 of those were from Rondo and Sullinger. And though Garnett hotly disputed the scoring decision that left him with zero rebounds — good-natured expletives and threats that he would get the scoring changed followed — he applauded what his teammates were able to do to help him out.

“I thought we did a real good job of just being firm,” Garnett said. “I thought we were aggressive tonight. When we’re like that and playing with an edge and a chip on our shoulder, it’s hard to beat us.”

And Sullinger had a hand in that. He was aggressive, especially when he got extended time in the fourth quarter.

Overall, he is getting better. Sullinger understands what the Celtics need, and what the NBA requires of its players. He can see it in himself. Rivers can see it in him. The fact that he’s gaining knowledge appears to be the key component for the 20-year-old.

“I’m learning,” Sullinger said. “I tell Doc every day I’m learning. I’m a rookie, sometimes you’ve got to be patient. But he expects so much out of me, so I’ve got to understand that.”

And, Sullinger said, he’s got to learn at a “faster curve than everybody else.”

“He’s learning still that there’s a different pace that you have to play in this league, compared to Ohio State,” Rivers said. “We’re on him about it and he’s improving. He’s a smart, smart kid on the floor.”

So how close is he to where he wants to be?

“Nowhere near close,” Sullinger said. “I’m still learning. Season’s still young. As a team we’re still learning, so we’ll see what happens.”

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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