Commentary

Celtics soldier on sans Sullinger

Updated: February 2, 2013, 4:15 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- For a team associated with leprechauns and shamrocks, the Boston Celtics have had a rotten sort of luck in recent seasons, at least when it comes to injuries.

After All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo was lost for the season due to an ACL tear in his right knee, the Celtics revealed that rookie forward Jared Sullinger underwent lumbar disk surgery Friday and will miss the remainder of the 2012-13 season.

The Sullinger news was a stomach punch for a team already coping with the loss of its most talented player. Boston said goodbye to two starters in the span of five days, adding a whole new set of hurdles to a season of woefully inconsistent play.

It's enough to leave even the most ardent of Celtics fans pulling their hair out and cursing the team's fortunes. And while observers ponder the future of the franchise amid the recent rash of maladies, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers suggested there's no choice but to soldier on.

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Rocky Widner/Getty ImagesWith Jared Sullinger and Rajon Rondo sidelined, will Brandon Bass step up?

"It's tough, but [injuries are] just part of the game," reasoned Ainge. "Other teams go through it, we've been through it before and we'll go through it again. Injuries are part of the game. We have to deal with it the best we can."

Maybe he's just used to it by now. This is the same team that watched Kevin Garnett go down during 2009's title defense; Kendrick Perkins blew out his ACL during Game 6 of the 2010 Finals; Shaquille O'Neal's career ended unceremoniously with an Achilles issue in 2011 (the same season Rondo dislocated his elbow in the postseason); and last year featured Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox enduring heart ailments before Avery Bradley tore apart both of his shoulders in the 2012 playoffs.

It's enough to remind you that the most amazing part of winning a championship might be the mere ability to keep a team upright. Or fight through any injuries your team encounters.

Boston believes it has a chance to be in that latter group. The Celtics (23-23) clawed their way back to .500 by winning their third straight Rondo-less game with a 97-84 triumph over the Orlando Magic on Friday night at TD Garden.

With big decisions looming for Ainge and his staff, the Celtics are desperate to prove they are too talented and too prideful to wave a white flag now.

"We have a lot of fight in us," said Kevin Garnett. "Although Doc made his bull---- comments about us being soft and ---- [earlier this season], we're a team that will fight and we are a team [that is] very competitive and we're very prideful. So, when you lose pieces and you lose certain things about your team, you learn within each other and see the fight within each other and follow that.

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"More than anything, I think we're just being competitive out here, sharing the basketball, and playing."

The Celtics remain entrenched at the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference (a comfortable three-game lead over the still Andrew Bynum-less Philadelphia 76ers, but 1 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks in front of them). The question facing Boston's decision-makers is whether this team is talented enough to hold firmly to its lofty title dreams or whether it's more prudent to turn the attention to a future when Rondo and Sullinger might be back on the floor.

While the Sullinger injury only adds fuel to those that believe Boston should overhaul its roster, captain Paul Pierce talks as if that's not even an option.

"The goal still hasn't changed, so we've just got to keep guys in line with what we're trying to accomplish around here, don't stray off, don't use the injuries as an excuse, and continue to move on," he said.

The buzzword from Boston's decision-makers is opportunity. The loss of Rondo and Sullinger, they note, opens doors for others to thrive.

"I've always said this is an opportunity league and players that get opportunities step up and show what they are capable of doing," said Ainge. "Sometimes [underutilized players] are drowned out by other players and the lack of opportunity. It's a chance for us to see what they are made of."

Added Rivers: "This is a great opportunity for some of us in the locker room, some of the guys. We don't back up, we just keep moving forward. That's the way we have to approach it."

The loss of Rondo left the Celtics challenging a four-guard combination of Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Jason Terry, and Leandro Barbosa. Without Sullinger, Rivers pledged to go small and suggested that undersized big men like Jeff Green and Brandon Bass will take on larger responsibilities.

Green scored a team-high 17 points on Friday, while Bass upped his activity on the glass, finishing with six points and seven rebounds. Yes, it's the woeful Magic, but wins are wins.

Three weeks outside of the trade deadline, Ainge pledged to maintain his wait-and-see approach, but confirmed he will add two more bodies by the end of the month. Will it be young talent with future potential? Or veteran players with an ability to help support the load left by the absence of Rondo and Sullinger?

The next few games should force Ainge's hand. If the Celtics weren't already playing for the future after Rondo went down, now they truly are with Sullinger joining him on the shelf.

Ainge seems to believe this team can sustain.

"It's going to be tough, but we'll find another way to win," said Ainge. "We're losing our best rebounder, but on the heels of the Rajon injury, it's extra tough I guess, and we'll see how resilient we can be."

Ainge said he didn't feel any pressure to add another rebounder, noting, "Actually, the center spot is probably our deepest spot with [Kevin Garnett], [Chris] Wilcox and [Jason] Collins playing and all healthy." Ainge added that depth will likely prevent rookie Fab Melo from getting much of an opportunity (he did play 2 minutes of trash time on Friday and still looks insanely raw).

Should Ainge decide to seek an upgrade before the deadline, he won't be locked into replacing the departed. Yes, Boston could use a pure ball handler and another rebound-hunting big man, but Ainge will only seek to add players with potential to carve out a role on this team.

Rivers said before Friday's game that Boston will continue to morph in the shape of its available bodies. The Celtics will play more small ball and ultimately lean on its best players, regardless if they fit the typical lineup mold.

Like Ainge, Rivers said he couldn't get swept up in the frustrations of Boston's injury woes.

"My emotions are to the team, I have to give them that," said Rivers. "I've told them after [Friday's morning] shootaround & our goals haven't changed. Nothing's changed. We will have to play differently again. I think we're still working on what we may have to do. But I think we definitely have to be a small-ball team. We'll start big, as usual with Brandon and Kevin -- I don't know if that's big, but that's how we'll start. After that, we just have to put our five best players on the floor, so we're going to have to be creative."

Nothing about this season has unfolded the way Boston anticipated. Not the up-and-down play. Not the injuries. Now Boston has to get creative if it wants even the opportunity to maintain its desired script for how the 2012-13 season will end.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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