Two of the best rebounders in the NBA sat about 10 feet from each other in the Chicago Bulls locker room Friday night, smiling about a 100-99 overtime win over the Celtics, but in awe over what it took to get there.
Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, who entered the game ranked eighth and 12th in the NBA with 10.7 and 9.7 rebounds per game, respectively, had worked unusually hard for a game against the NBA’s third-worst team in rebounding differential (minus-3.8).
This was expected to be a cakewalk on the glass for Chicago. And in the previous two matchups this season, it was: The Bulls combined to outrebound the Celtics, 83-69.
But Jared Sullinger hardly played in those games, averaging less than 14 minutes and just two rebounds.
With Sullinger on the court Friday, Noah and Boozer had to work.
“No question,” Noah said. “He’s a very solid player. Very tough. A strong, strong guy.
“I think [rebounding] was definitely something that [Celtics coach Doc Rivers] emphasized, because we have been rocking them on the glass the last three, four times we’ve been playing them. When that happens, it becomes like a pride thing. They competed hard tonight.”
Sullinger played a career-high 38 minutes, hauling in 15 rebounds as the Celtics put together a late-game rally. The Bulls won the battle of the boards by just one this time, 43-42.
“You know who gave them a big lift — it was Sullinger,” Boozer gushed. “What a great job, man. For a rookie playing in a big game, I was impressed.”
After Noah spent a few minutes dissecting his growing rivalry with Kevin Garnett — he ultimately decided that he won that battle, considering the Celtics lost the game — the 6-foot-11-inch, 232-pound center conceded that the Celtics looked completely different this time around.
Rivers had planned for this.
He expected Sullinger to make an impact in the rebounding battle. But his presence late in the game, especially in overtime, was a welcome surprise.
“It’s changing out there with a lot of these rookies,” Rivers said. “I think in all of sports. You see it in football with the quarterbacks. Guys are playing in big games now before they get to the pros. Years ago they didn’t. Now they’re doing it in high school.
“Jared was playing in national TV games in high school. I think he played in eight of them his senior year,’’ he said. “I don’t think bigness bothers him, in a lot of ways.”
After three straight games where the former Ohio State star had gotten into foul trouble early on, limiting his role, Sullinger was smarter this time. He still looked befuddled on some of the calls he received, but he lasted deep into the game, hauling in key rebounds deep into overtime.
“Those guys are one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the NBA,” Sullinger said. “So I felt like if we stopped them and only limited them to one shot, we had a great chance to run on them because everybody crashes the glass.”
Sullinger’s excellence on loose balls allowed guard Rajon Rondo to jump out in transition, where he scored 12 of his season-high 30 points.
“I think that’s when Rondo excelled — in transition, once we started kicking it out to him,” Sullinger said. “He’s like a jet. He just took off.”
The 31-year-old Boozer thought Sullinger showed no fear against a veteran team.
“You can’t be afraid,” Boozer said. “I think once he got his legs going — I mean he goes after every rebound. Especially in a game like this, a playoff-caliber game, and he did a great job out there man. I was really, really impressed with him. He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
One of the few knocks against Sullinger has been his knack for fouling out of games, which he has done in six of the last 14, including Friday. But Boozer thinks he’ll learn.
“They call them way more tightly than they did 10 years ago,” Boozer said. “You have to get in and get used to it. I think playing alongside KG, playing with Brandon [Bass], and playing here in a Celtics uniform, I think it’s something he’ll pick up quickly.”