After watching the visiting Milwaukee Bucks surge within a possession with 70 seconds to play, Sullinger dribbled out of a late-clock double-team and splashed a crucial 18-foot step-back jumper that helped the Celtics escape TD Garden with a 108-100 triumph.
With the win, Boston improved to 8-12 on the season and -- at least temporarily -- shuffled into first place in the Atlantic Division, which would guarantee Boston a top-4 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Sullinger, who Monday suggested that observers who prefer seeing the team lose can “kiss our butts" regarding tanking, didn't back down from those comments.
Instead, Sullinger sounded off again on those who believe Boston should intentionally lose games to better its draft position in the early stages of a transition process. An incredulous Sullinger wondered how anyone could expect professional athletes to purposely fail.
“I’m very insulted that people think that,” Sullinger said. “We work too hard just to play for another year. It’s almost like a business. Why not come out with new schemes and try to make your product that much better by selling it to people and playing hard? But don’t plan for the following year. That’s something I don’t believe in, I’ll never believe in. Just play hard every day, and that’s what we’ve been doing. We’re in every game, we’re putting up a fight. We’re playing hard.”
Tuesday's effort proved it. Sullinger didn't have a great shooting night (5-of-15) but finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals over a team-high 34 minutes, 46 seconds of floor time. The Bucks often sent double teams at Sullinger, but Boston adjusted by having him kick the ball to the perimeter for 3-point looks (Boston was 11-of-24, 45.8 percent from beyond the arc).
Sullinger ended up with the ball in his hands late in that crucial possession after Milwaukee had surged from as much as 15 down to pull within three. He took a pass from Brandon Bass on the low blocks and Brandon Knight left Avery Bradley to trap him with about five seconds on the shot clock. Without a safe option to kick to the perimeter, Sullinger put the ball on the floor and dribbled back out toward the free-throw line. He then performed a little step-back move to create just enough space to hoist a jumper over long John Henson that put Boston out front 101-96.
Sullinger's biggest contributions won't show up in the box score. Boston often ran its offense through him in the post and, when he drew attention, he kicked the ball outside and ball movement helped create open shots for his teammates. This was a big hockey assist night for Sullinger, who finished plus-7 in plus/minus, adding to his glossy season total (now plus-51).
"The [late-game] jump shot he hit was huge, but him touching the ball [in the post] is good for our team," first-year coach Brad Stevens said. "If you noticed in the fourth quarter, he touched it, doubles came, he handled it, he dribbled out of them, [then] kicked it across the court and we got 3s out of it off extra passes."
Asked about being able to confidently call Sullinger's number in late-game situations, Stevens later joked, "I was just thoroughly impressed with the coaching on that play. Got him the ball right where he wanted, did a triple lindy and shot the ball. It’s a good player making a good play. And bailing out a bad coach."
With the win, the Celtics sit comfortably ahead of the Knicks and Nets in the Atlantic Division. Boston has as many wins (eight) as its two New York rivals combined. But Sullinger cautioned those fans who are hesitant to get behind Boston's winning ways.
"If we win, don’t jump on the bandwagon now,” Sullinger cautioned. “We don’t want wishy-washy fans.”
Sullinger said the pundits lamenting Boston’s potential to make the playoffs in a dilapidated East are the same ones that were “laughing at us and said we were only going to win five games this year.” He said it’s simply not in the DNA of the players inside the Celtics’ locker room to give anything less than maximum effort in hopes of winning games.
“As grown men, we play hard, we fight for what we want,” Sullinger said. “And we’re doing it for the guys on this team. And for everybody outside the circle, we could care less. We’re going to fight and work hard.”
They showed that again on Tuesday night.