The more Jared Sullinger plays, the more the Celtics win

Whenever a team plays well, the easy solution is to point to one specific thing and say "That's it! That's the reason they've turned it around!" With the Celtics currently in a midst of a four game winning streak, the easiest factor to point to is the return of Avery Bradley. And that's extremely valid. Bradley has changed the team with his defensive effort and intensity. But it's never just one reason that a team turns it around and get's hot. For the Celtics, it's been a combination of factors over the past week; Bradley's return, Pierce's incredible efforts in Atlanta and New York, timely bench play, and Jared Sullinger's increase in playing time.

The last one is what I want to focus on here. While whether the Celtics win or lose is dependent on a host of factors, one thing has remained fairly consistent this season - When Jared Sullinger plays a significant number of minutes, the Celtics usually win. Let's take a look at the numbers.

When Sullinger plays more than 25 minutes - The Celtics are 6-1 (.857 Winning %)

When Sullinger plays between 20 and 25 minutes - The Celtics are 3-2 (.600 Winning %)

When Sullinger plays between 15 and 20 minutes - The Celtics are 5-6 (.455 Winning %)

When Sullinger plays less than 15 minutes - The Celtics are 4-8 (.333 Winning %)

If you want to just make one cut, at the 20 minute mark, the Celtics are 9-3 (.750 Winning %) when he cracks that number, and just 9-14 (.391 Winning %) when he doesn't. While numbers don't always tell the story, in my opinion they do in this case. The reasons:

- Sullinger has been a key to the Celtics defense as the Celtics allow just 0.999 points per possession when he's on the court, compared to 1.052 when he's off the court.

- He's the best offensive rebounder on the team - by a lot. When Sullinger is on the court the Celtics grab 25.9% of all possible offensive rebounds. When he's on the bench, they grab a putrid 17.4%. Now the Celtics philosophy has always been 'get back on defense whenever possible and forget about the offensive rebounds'. But Sullinger is the rare player who can crash the offensive glass and still get back and play good defense.

- Despite playing less than 20 minutes per game, Sullinger is a team best +66. Kevin Garnett is 2nd at +42. Plus/minus stats aren't always reliable, but with Sullinger they have been. He impacts all facets of the game and plays with a ton of energy.

Speaking of Garnett, Chris Forsberg had a good piece on the relationship between Garnett and Sullinger. Garnett, who doesn't always warm up right away to rookies (instead picking the ones worth putting the effort into), has taken Sullinger under his wing, which could explain Sullinger's smooth transition into the NBA. From the ESPN Boston article (link).
But make no mistake, he [Garnett] has pushed Sullinger, teaching him all the tricks gathered over the course of a decorated 18-year NBA career. Sullinger said he can hear Garnett barking at him from the bench, trying to give him pointers during games.

"I can always hear him in the back of my head," Sullinger said. "He's always trying to mentor me, tell me what I can do, what he sees. Trying to make me see what he sees."

"I don't know, we have a connection and it works," Garnett said. "I haven't really sat back and analyzed it, but every situation is different, and I try not to compare people and just go with what's in front of me. I just try to be there for him. You're going to go through enough things as a young guy, as a rookie, so I try to be there for the guy.

"He's very poised. You're not going to get under his skin, not going to rush him. Just when you think he's backing down, he's in your face. Practice every day is not a cupcake practice. We push the young guys here. Our practices are hard, they are emotional, they are filled with passion. I'm not saying that they are games, with popcorn popping and fans and [reporters] sitting three seats away from us. But practices are real, and they are serious; they get intense at times. That experience and going through that, and carrying it over to games, I think that's helped."

For a young big man just entering the league, it's hard to imagine a better role model than Garnett, as Tim Duncan is the only other active player who compares. It's also a positive sign to read about how eager Sullinger is to learn. Many young players, especially a two time All-American who was drafted in the first round, enter the league with an inflated ego. Not Sullinger.

As for Sullinger's playing time. It's been going up. He's averaged 27 minutes a game in the winning streak compared to just 17.5 minutes in the first 31 games of the season. Rookie or not, Sullinger has earned that increase in playing time by impacting his team each time he enters the game.

Sullinger's On/Off splits from basketball reference

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