When Jermaine O'Neal returned to the Celtics' lineup on Christmas Day, coach Doc Rivers gave rookie Semih Erden a bit of coal in the form of seven straight DNPs. Even when Kevin Garnett went down four days later in a game Erden missed due to an upper respiratory infection, Rivers leaned on fellow rookie Luke Harangody to fill the void in the frontcourt while noting his intensity in game and practice situations was simply more inspired than what Erden was producing.
But Rivers also reminded Erden to stay ready because Boston's brittle frontcourt was going to need him again at some point.
Even after logging quality minutes with Jermaine O'Neal again sidelined in recent days, Erden got thrust into an even greater role Friday when Shaquille O'Neal departed in the first quarter with a sore right hip, Erden responded by making all five shots he attempted (most of the dunk variety) in an energy-filled 30 minutes that saw him score a career-high 14 points, while adding seven rebounds, three steals, and a block.
“[Erden] played great," said Rivers. "He was just -– he was physical, he played hard. Again, when Semih just plays hard and does his job, he helps us. And, you know, sometimes sitting down a little bit reminds him of that -- reminds you that you want to play. And he’s doing that. We’re going to need him probably in the next couple games."
With Rivers hinting Shaq could be sidelined for a bit with the hip injury, Erden has the potential to rejoin the starting lineup, a spot he held down in the absence of both O'Neals during a four-game stretch in early December. By starting Erden, the Celtics can keep top reserve Glen Davis in a sixth-man role he's thrived in this season and further protect Erden by keeping him on the court with Boston's best players.
"Playing with the starters helps, too," said Rivers. "That’s why we started Semih in the second half instead of Baby. Because it gives him protection in some ways. So that always helps. I think it forces you to play harder when you play with that group because [Kevin Garnett is] out there and he demands it."
For his part, Erden, who said after the game he's as healthy as he's been after battling shoulder and groin ailments, admitted the extended time glued to the bench helped remind him of what Rivers expects out of the rookie. By playing with energy, he masks some of the deficiencies in his still-raw game. But with every emphatic dunk, he reminds Rivers what the potential is for the 24-year-old center.
Pep talks from Shaq, like one he received during Wednesday's win over the Detroit Pistons, have Erden playing inspired ball.
After Friday's game, Erden spent time having a more friendly chat with countrymate Mehmet Okur, who went scoreless in 6:30 off the Utah bench. While noting that the two are great friends, Erden also took great pride in beating his Turkish brethren.
"Of course," said Erden. "I'm Boston. I'm Celtics."
Just another indication that Erden is starting to get how things work around here. Now players like Garnett simply wants him to build off Friday's effort.
“Semih was aggressive tonight," said Garnett. "One of the things we have been trying to make sure Semih does is to be aggressive. I think he understands the plays we just have to get him to continue to play good basketball in games and continue to play through plays. NBA games are tough, man. It’s not something that you pick up in one or two days. It is a work in progress and he is doing a good job of it.
"He has come a long way. He’s very good. I don’t think you guys understand how methodical he is with both hands. He plays against Shaq and all the bigs that he does so he has no choice but to get better. He’s starting to get some time to play so that’s a good thing.”
--POINT GUARD MATCHUP FIZZLES WITH WILLIAMS IN FOUL TROUBLE--
With much of the pregame hype centered on the battle between all-world point guards Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo, the matchup ultimately fizzled when Williams picked up two fouls in under four minutes and could only watch as Boston opened a double-digit lead.
Rondo drew both foul calls against Williams, forcing him out of the game with 8:18 remaining in the first frame. After spending much of the pregame in the locker room watching game film from Williams' dominating effort in Boston's loss last season in Utah, Rondo clearly came out with a game plan.
“That’s typical Rondo," said Garnett. "Rondo is one of the biggest students of the game on our team. Everybody watches film, I know I catch Paul watching film on his own. When you are playing against players that can take game over and are the leaders of other teams, tonight he just [defensed it] up. You tend to know the other guy, especially Rondo.
"We have a lot of guys that are prideful around here and when we play that player, whoever it is, we all have them. He was a little focused in tonight. That’s typical [Rondo] though, he’s going to watch film, he’s going to know their sets, their calls and he was more than ready tonight.”
Rondo finished with four points and 12 assists (10 of which came before the intermission as Boston built an 18-point cushion) over 31 minutes. Williams registered five points, making only 1 of 4 shots, with six assists over 23 minutes.
Utah coach Jerry Sloan didn't make excuses despite not having his point guard at a key juncture of the game.
"Well, the game still has to be played, I mean, we hate to lose him of course, but can’t do anything about that," said Sloan. "You still got to compete and I didn’t think we competed that hard."
For his part, Williams wasn't pleased with the early foul trouble, hinting he didn't agree with the whistles.
"I was excited, I was ready to get out there and play today," he said. "If I could of just got a chance maybe I could of done something but I didn’t have a rhythm early, two quick fouls -- two quick calls I should say -- took me out of the game, and couldn’t really recover."
--LOOSE BALLS: TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES FOR DANIELS, ROBINSON--
* Marquis Daniels played through the pain of a sprained left ankle suffered in Wednesday's win over the Pistons. He still chipped in eight points, six assists, and four rebounds over 25:41. He noted he was "fine" after the game, an ice bucket next to his locker to ease the pain. The mild-mannered Daniels also picked up his first technical of the season after air-punching when he didn't get a call driving to the basket early in the fourth quarter.