Sullinger makes most of a tough season

WALTHAM, Mass. -- With just 12 games left in the season, time is running short for players on the Boston Celtics roster to make final impressions.

After a surprising 12-14 start to the 2013-14 campaign, the brutal past four months -- full of trades, injuries, and losses -- have left this group with seemingly little to play for down the stretch.

Despite the team’s struggles, Jared Sullinger has emerged as a leader this year, and he knows that this group can’t mail it in over the final four weeks of the season.

“I mean it’s tough, but at the same time we understand that this is basketball,” Sullinger explained. “We get paid to compete, not to just let a season go by. We’re competing every day, we’re trying to get better every day, and we understand that maybe these 12 games can carry over into next year.”

Sullinger has been one of the few bright spots for the Celtics on the floor this year, as well. The second-year power forward rebounded well from season-ending back surgery last February to post career-bests in both points (12.8) and rebounds (8.2) per contest. Despite this progress, Sullinger has struggled with consistency recently, making just 36 percent of his field goals over the past 10 games.

Brad Stevens talked at Tuesday’s practice about what he’s seen from Sullinger in the midst of a disappointing year for the team.

“He’s obviously a talented player. He’s a guy that offensively can score with his back to the basket against guys that sometimes may be a little bit bigger than him. He can space. He hasn’t shot it great, obviously, but he can space the floor and bring a guy out that is bigger than him that would be more difficult to post,” Stevens said.

With so much up in the air regarding which members of the Celtics roster will be back next year, Sullinger is one of the few players on the team that should feel secure about his status with the team moving forward.

With that in mind, Stevens is looking for the big man to improve his game not just during the team’s final 12 games, but also during the offseason as the team builds for the future.

“I think he can get a lot better, and I think he will continue to get a lot better,” Stevens said. “I think it’s good that he’s had -- knock on wood -- a full season thus far with the exception of a couple games here or there to play. But these next couple of weeks and then heading into the summer, this is a big time for him. I think he can take a next step.”

Sullinger knows that next step begins with a sprint to the finish over the final month of the season.

“For me, [my goal is] just finishing the season out strong,” Sullinger said. “Understanding that you are evaluated everywhere you go, every time you step on the floor, so I can’t just say ‘forget about the season.’ I have to come out there and play hard.”

Once the season ends, Sullinger’s offseason priority will be improving his conditioning on the floor so he can handle a heavier workload.

“It’s mostly about being able to play longer stretches as effectively as possible,” Stevens explained. “And sometimes those stretches happen throughout the course of the game where you do play pretty well for an extended stretch because you do feel well that night or whatever the case may be, but just being able to do it back to back, to back, to back, to back. That’s the challenge of the NBA in general. Again, for a young guy, in his second year, he’s had a lot of great moments. I think that the focus will be on enhancing the number of times that you have those moments, because he’s a capable guy.”

The Celtics have a plan for the future and Sullinger appears to be a big part of it. His potential strides will prove pivotal for the team to gauge just how quickly they can advance to the next stage of their rebuilding.