- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Celtics close out practice Sunday with 5-on-5, halfcourt work.WALTHAM, Mass. -- Eight months and eight days after a season-ending back injury left him hobbling off the TD Garden floor, Celtics forward/center Jared Sullinger will resume game activity on that same parquet when Boston opens its exhibition slate with a visit from the Toronto Raptors on Monday evening.
"It's going to be cool," said Sullinger, who tried to shift the focus to how a new-look team will respond than his first game action in 251 days. "Honestly, we’re just working on our game as a team and trying to get team chemistry."
Sullinger, the 21st pick in the 2012 draft, recently had ascended to the starting lineup when the same back that left other teams leery and allowed him to slide to Boston in the draft flared, chasing him from the court after just four minutes during a win over Sacramento on Jan. 30. Sullinger underwent lumbar disk surgery the next morning and spent the next six months limited in activity as he healed. Even as he works on improving his conditioning after the layoff, Celtics coach Brad Stevens stressed that there are no other limitations on Sullinger entering the first game of the preseason.
Asked how he feels after five days of workouts to open training camp, Sullinger said, "Good; every day getting in better shape. I can tell, throughout practice, I’m starting to survive a little bit more as the time goes on. So I just have to keep working."
Pressed on his conditioning, Sullinger added, "Everything feels great, but conditioning -- I've got to get in better shape. Being six [or] seven months off and just coming right back in and trying to play with these guys that have been working out all summer and played the whole NBA season last year, I’m just a tier under everybody right now as far as conditioning."
One thing Sullinger has stressed is that he's not worried about his back. He said he cleared that mental hurdle earlier the summer. At the moment, he's excited to get physical with someone that's not in a green jersey.
"I’m happy to be out there and finally get to bang against somebody else besides Kelly [Olynyk] or Vitor [Faverani] or Kris [Humphries] or [Brandon] Bass or even Jeffrey [Green]," Sullinger said. "It’s going to be a lot of fun."
Sullinger averaged 6 points and 5.9 rebounds over 19.8 minutes per game in 45 appearances as a rookie. He's part of Boston's crowded frontcourt, but said he's fine with Stevens' plan to mix and match lineups this week as the team tries to figure out exactly how its frontcourt rotations will look when the regular season arrives.
Read on for more practice notes, including how the team is eager for a game, Avery Bradley is ready to lead and Stevens rolled up his sleeves after practice:
BRING ON THE RAPTORS
While Stevens probably would prefer some additional practice time before the games arrive, he knows the eight-game exhibition slate will help the process of determining rotations and roles.
As for what he's looking for when the Celtics hit the floor on Monday night, Stevens said, "First of all, I’d like to see us play hard. I’d like to see us play together. I’d like to see us play as good on each possession as we can be. We’ll be able to, after [Monday's game], have countless clips of film that we’ll be able to show things that we can control where we can be better."
And even though the Celtics and Raptors meet three times this month, including to open the regular season on Oct. 30 in Toronto, Stevens is focused almost exclusively on his team.
"I’ve spent a lot more time on us," he said. "I haven’t treated this like a regular-season game. I haven’t gotten too in depth into the opponents. I’ll look into that a little bit. This is much more about us."
There are much bigger things to worry about at the moment than the opponent. Like making sure he's got a suit ready for his NBA debut ("I hope there’s one that’s ironed," he quipped) and double-checking those Google Map directions to TD Garden ("I will leave early tomorrow to make sure that I don’t get A) caught in traffic and B) if I make a wrong turn, it’s not the end of the world.")
BRADLEY READY TO LEAD
When the Celtics step on the floor Monday night, the longest-tenured player available will be Avery Bradley (only Rajon Rondo has been around longer in Boston, but he's still rehabbing from ACL surgery). The 22-year-old Bradley is embracing the idea of being a leader.
"I’m confident. And the reason why I say that is I’m going to go hard every single day," Bradley said. "It doesn’t matter if it's practice, game, I’m always going to go hard. I’m going to try to be that example for the younger guys and for some of my teammates. ... I want us to play for each other every day so we can be the best team we can be."
Bradley and his teammates have been defiant to the idea that they will struggle as they navigate this transition process. He refuses to believe it.
"We talk a lot [about the perceived low expectations]," Bradley said. "It’s been like that and we have to continue to work hard and use that as motivation. Just like as an individual, if someone says you can’t do something, you have to go out there and work even harder to prove them wrong. That’s what we’re going to do as a team."
SNAPSHOT: STEVENS ON THE REBOUND
Stevens isn't afraid to roll up his sleeves after practice. When Jeff Green and some teammates decided to get up some extra 3-pointers after the session, Stevens joined player development coach Ronald Nored to chase rebounds and feed passes: