“The sky’s the limit.”
— Brad Stevens on Jared Sullinger.
There are nights when Sullinger raises his ceiling, the so-called limit on just how the second-year Celtics forward might one day become if he reaches his full potential.
There are nights when it seems, as Sullinger’s coach said, there really is no limit at all, and that, maybe, the only thing that could stop Sullinger from being a dominant force every night is himself.
Friday was one of those nights when Sullinger dazzled the TD Garden audience and crushed the Sacramento Kings with a career-high 31 points and 16 rebounds as he carried the Celtics to a 99-89 win.
It marked the Celtics’ third straight victory, their longest streak since winning three straight from Dec. 3-8, when they beat Milwaukee, Denver, and New York.
Moreover, after posting a 2-15 record in January, the worst record in any calendar month in franchise history, the Celtics (18-33) improved to 3-0 in February.
Their latest win came on the surgically-repaired back of Sullinger, who notched his 16th double-double this season, his 11th in the last 20 games, and his fourth in a row.
“He’s always there, it seems like,” said reserve guard Jerryd Bayless, who scored 19, his most as a Celtic. “Jared’s a very talented basketball player and we need to him to play like that every night.”
Sullinger also stepped up with starting guards Rajon Rondo (soreness) and Avery Bradley (ankle) both sidelined.
“Tip your hat to Jared Sullinger,” said Kings coach Michael Malone. “He came in here and dominated us tonight.”
Sullinger, who made 14 of 24 shots, was dynamite in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics took control.
He scored 14 points in the final stanza, including 9 during a back-breaking 19-2 Celtics run that gave them a 93-75 lead with 6:07 left in the game.
“[Sullinger] had an incredible game today,” said Kings center DeMarcus Cousins.
But so did Cousins, who matched Sullinger in points (31) and rebounds (16) as the two went back and forth in the paint all night.
“It was a battle down there,” Stevens said.
A key difference: Cousins is listed at 6 feet 11 inches while Sullinger is listed at 6-9, though he’s really closer to 6-7, making him one of the more undersized post players in the league.
“And that’s what makes Jared unique is he’s a big, strong guy that can score over bigger guys in the post,” Stevens said. “But then, that’s why it’s so critical, and we’ve talked about it, that he continues to work and refine his perimeter game, which he’s obviously doing well with. But it’s not where it will be someday.”
Said Sullinger: “I just went out and played my game. I’ve been doing it for the last couple games and just letting everything go [and] just showing better body language, according to my father.”
Sullinger’s father, Satch, coached Sullinger throughout high school in Ohio, and Satch was never easy on his son. Satch also came to Boston recently and told his son that the way he was carrying himself wasn’t good enough.
Sullinger has turned his game up ever since, though he deferred on taking credit.
“Everybody is talking about my individual performance, but I’m just glad we got the win,” he said. “I’m always a team player. As a team, we played great.”
The Celtics did provide one of their better all-around performances, especially considering they were so shorthanded.
Bayless made 4 of 5 3-pointers and veteran swingman Gerald Wallace nearly pulled off a triple-double with 8 points, 9 assists, and 12 rebounds.
Rookie forward Kelly Olynyk added 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists. And Jeff Green scored 17, though he struggled, hitting just 6 of 20 shots after scoring 36 Wednesday against Philadelphia.
The Kings (17-33) were playing without starters Rudy Gay (flu) and Marcus Thornton (hip). Guard Isaiah Thomas tried to fill the void with 24 points.
But again, it came back to Sullinger, whose night was all the more encouraging because he said he still hasn’t completely recovered from back surgery that cut his rookie year short.
“I think he feels better every day, and you know, it’s like we talked about last week: fair or unfair, that’s who we need him to be,” Stevens. “And so that’s the opportunity in front of him.
“He’s capable, and I’m not saying that you have to get a double-double every day, but he’s darn near capable of doing that. And so I think that the more that we can continue to build off that, the better.”
Unlike at Ohio State, Sullinger said he has more space to operate in the NBA.
“In college, I was doubled all the time, so I had to find ways to score,” he said.
He’s made the most of the additional room, but the key, as Sullinger knows, is consistency.
“That’s what the great players do,” he said. “They’re consistent. They play night in, night out and they give it their all. That’s why they’re considered great.”
They also work on their game and add to it each summer — a move, a shot, something.
“I’m sure my dad will find something,” Sullinger said, smiling.
It will all help Sullinger reach his potential, whatever it might be.
“How high does he reach?” Stevens asked. “He’s not there. That’s the good news. He’s not there. He can get better.”