UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Much of the crowd had emptied to the gaming floor outside the Mohegan Sun Arena and the court would soon be inhabited by a who's who of NBA Development League-bound talent, but there was Boston Celtics third-year big man Jared Sullinger playing deep into the fourth quarter.
On a night where veterans young (Kelly Olynyk) and old (Gerald Wallace) enjoyed a break in the action, Sullinger could have easily lobbied for some time off as the Celtics played their fourth exhibition game in six nights. Instead, Sullinger logged 25 minutes, 34 seconds of action -- the most of any non-rookie on the roster -- as the New York Knicks ran away with a 96-80 triumph.
Since the end of last season, Sullinger has stressed a desire to improve his conditioning and find a way to maintain his consistency through four quarters. With Boston short on available big men, Sullinger didn't shy away from late-game reps that might aid him in what some teammates have suggested could be a breakout season.
Through four games, Sullinger has logged nearly 100 minutes of floor time, the third-highest on the team (only rookie Marcus Smart and newcomer Evan Turner have played more). Sullinger is averaging 14.5 points, a team-high 8.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. He's shooting 58.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc and 52.3 percent from the floor.
On this night, Sullinger was an ultra-efficient 6-of-7 shooting (3-of-4 beyond the arc) with a team-high 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal. Coach Brad Stevens continues to suggest he can do more, but likes the way Sullinger is trending.
"He’s done a lot of good things," said Stevens. "And he’s another guy that, he’s not just playing these games, he’s coming in and doing extra stuff, and he’s working a ton away from these games right now."
While Stevens said before Saturday's game that the team's rotation is slowly taking form and that a couple starter spots might even be up for grabs, it seems fair to suggest that Sullinger has likely cemented his spot in the rotation. He started in 44 out of 74 appearances last season, but the goal this year will be to entrench himself in that starting role and find a way to impact the game regardless of who he is playing alongside, whether it's a traditional center like Tyler Zeller or a stretch big like Kelly Olynyk.
Evan Turner, a fellow Ohio State product who worked out with Sullinger this summer, is certain bigger things are ahead.
"When I declared [for the NBA draft], everybody was like, 'Well, what do you think about the team next year?'" recalled Turner. "I said, ‘They have a guy coming in that’s going to average 18 [points] and 10 [rebounds]. He’s going to be unreal.’ So whatever he does, if somebody told me he went off for 100 points and 100 rebounds -- I’ll believe it.
"The kid’s a winner, the kid plays hard, and I think he’s going to really set himself aside from a lot of other big men this year."
The Celtics were pushing the ball in transition when Phil Pressey zipped a cross-court pass to a wide-open Marcus Thornton. On the Boston bench at the opposite side of the floor, Avery Bradley stood up expecting Thornton to bury the shot -- not a bad assumption considering the rhythm he was in by that point -- but it slammed off the side iron and Bradley's shoulders slumped and he could only shrug, as if at a loss to explain how the shot didn't go in.
If we've learned anything over the first four games of the preseason it's this: Thornton is going to score points off the bench. That's no small accomplishment. The Celtics have searched hard for a microwave scorer in recent seasons and with limited success as the likes of Nate Robinson and Jason Terry rarely offered consistent scoring.
Through four exhibition games, Thornton leads the team while averaging 15 points per game while logging only 20.5 minutes per contest. Thornton started the second half of Saturday's game with Boston resting veterans and finished with a team-high 15 points.
About the only negative is that Thornton finished 5-of-15 shooting, including 1-of-7 beyond the arc. Even still, he's shooting 43.1 percent from the floor overall and 40 percent from distance. His spot as a scorer off the bench has only been further solidified this preseason.
WHISTLED FOR TRAVELING
The Celtics wrapped up a stretch in which they played four games -- half their entire exhibition slate -- in a six-day span. Stevens tried to cram a couple practices in the middle of it all, but there's only so much the team could do given the game-heavy grind and some lingering injuries.
"For the young guys that have never been through it and for the young guys that just have to be reminded of it, you learn a lot when you play four games in six days," said Stevens. "And it’s been, I’d say, more positive than not. But we’ve got a lot of room to improve and hopefully we can get Jeff [Green] back here shortly and get him a part of our regular day-to-day thing and then whenever [Rajon] Rondo can eventually get back, that’s great. The closer to normalcy the better in the next few exhibition games that are spread out a little bit better than these were."
Boston will take Sunday off before a couple practices to start the week.
"It’ll nice to get back to practice," said Stevens. "It’s been a long week, to be quite candid."
Stevens noted the rigors of traveling, too. The team went north of the border to play Toronto on Friday, then trekked home to Boston. The Celtics endured a long bus ride to Mohegan Sun, getting snarled in weekend traffic along the way.
"This is our second long bus ride," said Stevens, after the Celtics and Knicks played in Hartford on Wednesday. "We got [to Mohegan Sun] a little late. And it’ll be good for our guys to compete tonight, because it’s going to be about, ‘Hey, the bus isn’t always on time; the pregame meal isn’t always set up.’ You just have to go and play when you’re supposed to play."
GREEN NEARS RETURN
Stevens said swingman Jeff Green, sidelined for the past week with a calf strain suffered in an intrasquad scrimmage, got work on an anti-gravity treadmill Saturday and could be progressing toward a potential return to practice on Monday, though Stevens was cautious with that target. "Jeff Green was doing the Alter-G today at 80 or 90 percent [of his body weight]," said Stevens. "I’m not going to speculate that’s he’s going to be available for practice Monday, but it should be sooner rather than later."