WALTHAM, Mass. -- Boston Celtics big man Jared Sullinger was asked if he liked the idea of home-and-home series, such as the one the team is in the middle of with the Bucks. Milwaukee posted a 92-85 win over visiting Boston on Saturday night and will visit TD Garden for a rematch (the teams' third encounter this season) on Tuesday.
Sullinger said he didn't mind this instance because, "One, they beat us last time and, two, because we need a win to stay in the playoff rankings. It’s a must-win for us, I believe."
We know what you're thinking: 1) How in the world have the Celtics lost twice to the three-win Bucks already this season and 2) Did Sullinger really bring up the playoffs for a 7-12 team that's played less than a quarter of its schedule while deeming Game 20 a must-win?
Forgive Sullinger. He's spearheaded the "We're not tanking!" movement since Boston dealt Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn this summer. Sullinger has remained steadfast that there's enough talent here to be competitive.
And given the state of the Eastern Conference, it's hard to argue with him.
The Celtics entered Monday a game out of the playoff picture and only a ½ game behind Toronto for the top spot in the Atlantic Division (Keep in mind that division winners are guaranteed one of the top four seeds in the postseason, and only two teams in the East have a winning record at the moment).
So Sullinger sounded off again on Monday about diminished expectations for this transitioning Celtics squad.
"Lot of guys expect us to just like tank for [top draft prospects Jabari] Parker or [Andrew] Wiggins," Sullinger said. "Y’all might as well throw that out the door. I don’t know why people keep talking about tanking. We've got competitors around here, we’re not really like that. We don’t care if Jeff [Green] averages 20 [points per game] or I average 8, we just want to win. And show everybody that they can kiss our butts about that tanking stuff."
Sullinger is a team-best plus-44 in plus/minus this season and no one else among regulars is in the positive. In fact, Boston is a staggering minus-113 when Sullinger is off the court. The second-year big man has been the Celtics' most consistent two-way player, but even he's not thrilled with his individual achievements because of the team's record.
"Not really happy with the numbers because we’re what, 7-12?" Sullinger asked. "I’m not really happy about that. But I can play better. And I will play better."
Go ahead and add coach Brad Stevens in that unsatisfied category. Asked about his team's progress over a whirlwind start to the 2013-14 season, a stretch that saw Boston play a league-high 19 games in 31 days, Stevens said he always sees room for advancement.
"I’m never happy," Stevens said. "I know that may sound crazy. I’ve never had a team in November or December that you’re excited about where you’re at. You’re just excited about where you can go. Everybody starts from that. And that’s part of coaching. That’s the fun part of coaching. But the hard part is keeping everybody on that path toward improvement."
For Sullinger, as long as the path toward improvement leads away from the road to the NBA lottery, he's fine with it.