The Brooklyn Nets had already hauled in 14 offensive rebounds against the Boston Celtics over the first 19 minutes of Thursday's game in Brooklyn when Boston rookie Jared Sullinger got caught out of position. He hedged too high on a pick-and-roll and was scrambling to get back to his man, who had set up shop under the glass.
Fearful of giving up another offensive board, Sullinger pushed Kris Humphries from behind, drawing a whistle that gave the Nets the ball back without even having to fight for the rebound.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers had seen enough. Sullinger, a rookie whose calling card is cleaning the glass, didn't just get the hook, he spent the rest of the night on the bench.
"I just told all the guys: If you get an offensive rebound on you, you're coming out and [Sullinger] was the first," explained Rivers.
It was a little bit of a tough love for a young player. Rivers wanted Boston's top pick in this year's draft to learn a lesson that game, but was also interested to see how he'd respond.
Sullinger bounced back Saturday by posting his first career double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds over 26:23 in a 107-89 thumping of the Toronto Raptors. He followed it up on Sunday by being maybe the Celtics' best player on the floor -- at least in the fourth quarter -- when he scored a team-high 16 points in a 103-83 loss to the Detroit Pistons.
"He kind of knows where to go, he knows his place," Rivers said. "I think he wasn't happy about not playing against Brooklyn. He just knows how to play. He has a calming effect at times when you put him in -- and I don't think I've ever said that about a rookie. It's nice to have that."
Sullinger admitted he was anything but calm after Thursday's benching. Asked if he was upset, Sullinger immediately answered, "Yup." But he clarified later that he was angry at himself for giving Rivers a reason to pull him from the game. Couple that with Boston losing in Brooklyn, and Sullinger wasn't a particularly happy camper.
He put his focus back on rebounding on Saturday and good things happened. Sullinger was 5-of-8 shooting on Saturday and followed it up by going 7-of-12 on Sunday, making all six shots he put up in the fourth quarter and helping to prolong teammate Rajon Rondo's double-digit assist streak (Sullinger accounted for Rondo's last four assists, including No. 10 in the final minute).
The Celtics expect that offense to become more consistent as his NBA career unfolds, but Sullinger knows his role at the moment.
"That's what I came here to do, is just to rebound," he said. "And then everything else will kind of just fall into place."
Entering Sunday's game in Detroit, Sullinger was averaging 0.964 points per play on offense, ranking in the 69th percentile among all players, according to Synergy Sports data (a strong overall number, ranking him just ahead of teammate Brandon Bass and the two players have shared the starting role at power forward this season).
Defensively, Sullinger is holding his own for a Boston team that's still working out some early season kinks. He is allowing 0.727 points per play, ranking him in the 79th percentile. The Celtics struggled early in the season when Sullinger was paired with Bass as part of an early sub lineup, but Boston now keeps a pure big on the floor next to him -- whether it's Garnett or Chris Wilcox -- alleviating some of the woes that undersized combo endured.
It's clear the 20-year-old Sullinger has already earned the trust of his veteran teammates, particularly Garnett, and that's no small feat in and of itself.
"Sully does small things like rebounding the ball, the way he gets guys open [with screens], small things that y'all probably [don't see on the stat sheet]," Garnett said. "But playing with him, you're seeing it -- his dives, his rolls, him giving [Jason Terry] open looks, stuff like that -- little small things that are not going to show up on your yellow [note] pad. The small things that he does, it makes us better. In order for us to be better -- and in this process of getting better -- everybody has to do those small things."
Terry believes any message Rivers sent on Thursday was received loud and clear by Sullinger.
"We've seen what he's capable of doing: Being active on the offensive glass, being a presence on the defensive end, and then knocking down shots," Terry said. "He's a very intelligent player. You don't have to tell him things twice. Once you remind him, he's right on his job."
Sullinger knows there's still plenty to learn at this level and he's going to endure growing pains.
"You're human, so you're going to make mistakes," Sullinger said. "It happens. It is what it is."
Sometimes in the NBA, it's how you bounce back from that adversity. And as the past two games have only confirmed, Sullinger definitely knows how to rebound.