Shortly after acquiring Isaiah Thomas, the Celtics made a shocking announcement about the status of one of their best players.
The Celtics announced that Jared Sullinger was going to miss the rest of the season due to a stress fracture in his foot. The news was a huge blow at the time. Sullinger was leading the team in points and rebounds. And just like that, playoff basketball felt like a pipe dream for the Celtics.
Then came the final stretch.
The Celtics went 20-9 in their last seven weeks of the season, good enough for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. But while the C's were putting together winning streaks, Sullinger was working out. Sully made a speedy recovery, and was back in uniform on April 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks. Of course, Celtics coach Brad Stevens isn't giving Sullinger the usual 30-plus minutes per game that he was playing before the injury but that could change as the Celtics gear up for a first-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Sullinger logged in 28 minutes last Wednesday in the season finale at Milwaukee against the Bucks. It was the most he's played since injuring his foot last February. He had 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocks, his best game in months, but it wasn't great. It wasn't the Sullinger we've seen in the past. Celtics need the old Sully in this series against the Cavs. The same Sully who grabbed 15 rebounds in a huge Celtics win against the Atlanta Hawks just before the all-star break. Or the time he pulled down 16 boards in a nail-biting loss at Chicago against the Bulls on January 3. The point is Sullinger gives the Celtics a better chance to win when he's pulling down boards. Especially against elite teams like the Cavs.
But no knows exactly how much help Sullinger will provide his teammates with in the postseason. Although he's healthy enough to play, Sullinger doesn't quite look comfortable yet. He still hasn't found his groove yet.
In the seven games he's played in since his return, Sullinger averaged 5 points and 4 rebounds in 15 minutes per game. Coach Stevens will most likely increase his playing time in this playoff series against the Cavs but if Sullinger doesn't produce Stevens will be forced to bench him. The Celtics have proven they can win games without Jared, but in this first-round series they're going to need his rebounding.
"I think there's a couple of factors that are involved [with Sullinger's return]," Stevens said. "No. 1 is it takes some time to get back into the flow and rhythm of things. It's best if you can do it in three straight days of practice, but you just don't get that opportunity. Then the second part is, our second unit plays a little different than it did since [Sullinger has] been back. We're a little bit more spread out, a little bit quicker moving the ball, a little bit faster to make our next pass. We've been really getting into the paint by the drive, not by the post, or by the roll as much with that group. That's something where we'll figure out how to best utilize that and maximize that, but, right now, it's about continuing to feel more comfortable."By the end of February, Sullinger was averaging 16.5 points and 8 rebounds. Scoring isn't what the Celtics need from him in this series against the Cavs, but rebounding is. Last Friday at Cleveland, Sullinger pulled down 8 rebounds, the most he's grabbed in a single game since his injury. An impressive stat against the Cavs, a team that didn't rest their starters until the fourth quarter.
Cleveland finished the regular season as the eighth best rebounding team in the league. Kevin Love and Tristian Thompson combined average just less than 20 rebounds per game. The Celtics have to do their best to bring that average down and Sullinger can be a difference maker if his body allows him to.
The Cavs score most of their points in transition, especially off of their opponents' missed shots. The Celtics have to force the Cavs to make extra passes, slow them down. Rebounding is what sparks Cleveland's fast break offense. Celtics don't necessarily have to out-rebound the Cavs every night but cannot lose the rebounding battle by a large margin.
One advantage the Celtics have over the Cavs is their strong bench. If coach Stevens increases Sulinger's playing time, his bench production will keep games close throughout the series. Sullinger, alongside Isaiah Thomas and Kelly Olynyk, won't have to battle Love and Thompson for boards for long periods at a time. Also, Jared shouldn't have a problem scoring 10-12 points off of put-back layups in the paint, the area where he needs to stay in, battling for rebounds.
This is Sullinger's first taste of playoff basketball. After missing the second half of his rookie season because of a back injury, he didn't play in the 2013 playoffs series against the New York Knicks, so maybe his first time in the playoffs will be enough motivation for him to perform well. But it all comes down to how his body responds.
The Celtics have a daunting task ahead of them. And without a dose of the old Sullinger, the Celtics won't stand a chance against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers.