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Rethinking the Rajon Rondo-Jared Sullinger combo

03.27.14 at 10:24 am ET

Rajon Rondo told Brad Stevens he would like to play alongside Jared Sullinger “as much as possible,” but the Celtics captain and his coach don’t appear to be on the same page on this one, considering the sophomore big — probably the team’s second-best player at this point — hasn’t started a game for more than a month.

“I like playing on the court with Sully,” Rondo said after the C’s 99-90 loss to the Raptors. “I told Brad I wanted to play with Sully as much as possible. Not a knock on any of our other bigs, but one thing that Sully does that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet is he’s probably the best outlet passer we have.”

With respect to his encouragement of Sullinger’s 3-point shooting, Stevens admitted, “I’m not as much an analytics guy as everyone portrays me to be,” but the numbers support his coach’s hesitancy to pair the two more often.

The Celtics average 29.9 defensive rebounds, 23.2 assists and 98.8 points per 100 possessions while scoring 10.8 percent of their points on the fast break with Rondo and Sullinger paired on the court. To put that into perspective, the C’s average 33.3 defensive rebounds, 26.8 assists and 101.4 points per 100 possessions while scoring 18.7 percent of their points on the fast break with rookies Phil Pressey and Kelly Olynyk sharing the floor. Rondo and Sullinger are a minus-47 over 431 minutes; Pressey and Olynyk are a plus-21 over 418.

The Celtics have shot 29.4 percent on 218 3-pointers when Rondo and Sullinger are paired together. On the other hand, the C’s are shooting 35.7 percent on 196 3-pointers when Pressey and Olynyk share the floor. Statistically, those numbers correlate to the percentages from distance for both Sullinger (25.6 3P%) and Olynyk (32.6 3P%).

Against the Raptors, Sullinger’s three straight 3-pointers drew the Celtics within four points in the final minutes. He believes not taping his finger for the first time since dislocating it against the Thunder on Jan. 24 improved his feel.

“Obviously, it’s feeling a lot better,” he said after totaling 26 points and eight rebounds in defeat. “Those couple days we had off that we didn’t really practice really helped me get the mobility in the finger and also helped it heal. It’s constantly getting hit, and tonight I decided not to tape it up and felt comfortable out there.”

“I still believe in him shooting,” added Stevens. “I’ve seen him shoot. I believe in his form; I believe in how much he shoots. That doesn’t mean when he’s not making them he shouldn’t find other options and alternatives. Four for six gave us a chance to win tonight, and it’s not easy to score inside against [Jonas] Valunciunas and [Amir] Johnson with their length, so it makes sense to stretch him. They ended up not playing Valunciunas much late as a result of that I’m sure.” Of course, Valunciunas had already done his damage (15 points, 14 rebounds) by that point.

Still, Sullinger’s performance Wednesday was more of an aberration than a solution. He has only shot that well from 3 on one other occasion (4-5 vs. Cleveland on Nov. 29). Until making those three straight triples, he was 7-of-35 from beyond the arc this month. That’s 20 percent. Prior to dislocating his finger, Sullinger connected on 30-of-108 3-pointers (27.8%). Since then, he’s 15-of-68 (22.1%). Neither number is particularly encouraging.

Yet, “I believe in myself,” said Sullinger. “I don’t really care what the ‘nay-slayers’ say. Some of y’all are out here right now. I could care less. I’m just trying to expand my game, and if I’m open I’m going to shoot it.”

Actually, one of those “nay-slayers” was in the locker room when Sullinger defended his 3-point shooting.

“When we got back in it in the second quarter … it wasn’t because he made 3’s,” said Rondo. “It was because he got the ball out off the rim pretty quickly up the court, and we were able to turn it into transition buckets. The 3’s come and go. I think it’s because he cut his hair he made a couple more 3’s tonight. I told him that.

“So, it worked. He listened. He’s put the time and effort in as well, so I give him a lot of credit. He carried us throughout a stretch of the fourth quarter, but we came up short without getting stops.”

The haircut dig was a joke, by the way, but the subtle reference to defense may not have been. The Celtics are allowing 104.1 points per 100 possessions when Rondo and Sullinger are paired together. For the record, the C’s allow 98.9 points per 100 possessions when the Pressey-Olynyk combo shares the floor. So, perhaps it’s time for both Rondo and Stevens to start rethinking the analytics when it comes to Sullinger’s game.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Jared Sullinger, NBA, Rajon Rondo
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