While the player who claims to be the most overlooked and disregarded talent in the NBA is appearing in at least two national commercials, Isaiah Thomas and his Celtics teammates truly consider themselves under the radar as the season advances into the final stretch.
Damian Lillard has All-Star talent, and he and teammate C.J. McCollum came to TD Garden on Wednesday with massive agendas, seeking to prove they are among the league’s best while Portland is truly a contender in the Western Conference.
Their crusade was derailed against the Celtics, who continue to stress their lack of perceived respect as they remain with a vise grip on the third seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics’ 116-93 win was a figurative punch in the mouth of the Trail Blazers, as Isaiah and the Upstarts continue their quest toward respectability.
The theme afterward was remaining a well-kept secret, winning on the down low, streaking toward home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs with minimal attention.
The ascension of the Celtics, who now have won 18 of their last 24 games, is due to their depth and some surprising seasons from unexpected contributors. One of those is forward Jared Sullinger, who notched his 19th double-double of the season with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and a two-handed jam off the dribble that made every burly dude proclaiming to be light on his feet proud.
Sullinger’s sparkling season is one of the team’s biggest surprises. He sat for most of the preseason, apparently pushed out of the rotation because he reported to camp in similar shape as he did the previous season. By the Celtics’ fourth regular-season game, Sullinger was in the starting lineup, and he has started most of the season at power forward.
While he looks about the same as he did last season, Sullinger appears to be in the best shape of his career, and fatigue is no longer an issue in the second halves of games. While players such like Lillard appear in commercials about being disrespected by the NBA mainstream, players such as Sullinger are undervalued.
And in his case, it’s probably because of his size, which isn’t fair. Some players can be effective carrying more weight, and Sullinger is proving to be one of those players. What he has done to offset his size is working on the key aspects of his game. He has improved dramatically as a perimeter shooter and reduced his propensity for attempting 3-pointers.
Sullinger is shooting 50.6 percent on shots from 20 feet until the 3-point line, shots on which that he’s usually left open because frontcourt defenders don’t like straying that far from the basket. He has become a more confident scorer but also improved his decision-making on taking questionable shots.
The summer was spent training with workout guru and former NBA point guard John Lucas, who jumped on Sullinger for taking 3-pointers off the break and helped him work on his endurance late in games, when he admitted he grew tired.
“I feel great,” Sullinger said. “Everything I did this summer is paying off. You go back a couple of years ago, I would feel fatigue and start hitting a wall. But day and day out I’m feeling better.”
Sullinger sparked a 24-6 run to begin the second half with 9 points, including a splendid spin move that faked out Haverhill native Noah Vonleh to score an easy layup. The Celtics are a better team when Sullinger can score efficiently. In 58 games during an injury-shortened 2014-15 season, Sullinger attempted 184 3-pointers.
In 61 games this season, he has attempted 83. Sullinger ended his quest of trying to prove he’s a “stretch 4” and has decided to stick with his strengths. He has the ability to nab rebounds despite being shorter, and his perimeter shooting is troublesome for defenders.
And as he displayed Wednesday, there are occasions when he can go back to his roots and score off the dribble. He is better at picking his moments.
He saw his matchup with the 20-year-old Vonleh, whose defense is not a strength, as an opportunity to spark the offense. He did.
“I always have [those smooth moves],” Sullinger said. “You use it every now and then, can’t use it all the time. I thought the biggest thing was that I thought I had an advantage. I took advantage of what I had and the guys did a great job of finding me.”
Sullinger’s importance to the team is unquestioned, and he’ll have a key role in how far these under-the-radar Celtics go this season. His impact is not lost on his teammates.
“He’s done what he’s been doing basically the whole season,” Thomas said. “Rebounding the ball, getting open shots, and playing great. We need him to do that. When he’s plays at that level, it’s tough for us to be beat.”