BOSTON -- Jared Sullinger put the Boston Celtics on his surgically repaired back in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's visit from the Memphis Grizzlies and tried to carry them on a spirited (yet failed) comeback.
Sullinger scored 17 fourth-quarter points on 7-of-10 shooting, while grabbing six rebounds and handing out two assists in 10½ minutes of court time. Boston surged within three in the final seconds, but Memphis made its free throws to escape with a 100-93 triumph.
Inside the Celtics' locker room, Sullinger lamented his team's slow start and its overall struggles on its home floor this season. Boston is now 2-5 at TD Garden.
"We've got to win more at home, that is what's going to get us into the playoffs," Sullinger said.
Playoffs?! (full Jim Mora voice here). You kidding me?
To some, Wednesday's game was just about the perfect script for the Celtics. Despite a slow start, Boston scrapped its way back from a 19-point first-half deficit, surged within a possession in the final minute, and, most importantly, lost.
With that, Boston's brief two-game winning streak was snapped and the Celtics fell to 6-11 on the season. Only six teams in the league have a worse winning percentage at the moment and Boston projects as a lottery team (despite the fact that the team remains just a single game out of the playoffs in a dilapidated Eastern Conference).
Sullinger has been downright defiant toward those who believe the Celtics would be better off losing games this season. He's argued that there's more than enough talent for this team to make a playoff push, even if the pundits give the team zero chance to succeed.
Given the state of the East, it's hard to deny Sullinger's playoff aspirations, especially as Boston keeps its head above water while navigating a brutal November schedule without All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo.
In fact, maybe the biggest thing working against those in Tank Nation is Sullinger himself. With each game, his ceiling rises a little bit more and he further asserts himself as Boston's best two-way player.
Sullinger scored 23 points on 10-of-18 shooting on Wednesday, adding 12 rebounds (five on the offensive glass) and three assists over 35 minutes.
He refused to let Boston go quietly down the stretch. The Celtics were down 13 with less than two minutes to go when the second-year forward tried to take over the game.
Sullinger hit a 3-pointer with 1:43 to play, but the Memphis lead was still in double digits. He added a second triple the next trip down and Boston was in business down seven with 73 seconds to play.
After Memphis turned the ball over, Sullinger missed a layup attempt, but stuck with it, tipping in his own miss to trim the lead to five. The Grizzlies got a couple of free throws and Jeff Green missed a 3-pointer, but Sullinger again tracked the offensive rebound and put it back as Memphis clinged to a 92-87 lead with 28 seconds to go.
The Celtics ultimately made it a one-possession game with 14 ticks to play, but Jerryd Bayless (team-high 22 points, 9-of-11 at the free throw line) and the Grizzlies made their freebies to keep Boston at arm's length.
Asked about his fourth-quarter outburst, Sullinger said, "I just wanted to win. Honestly, we kind of let [Memphis] come in and take control of our home-court advantage. [But] we just kept fighting."
Sullinger referenced how Memphis had given away a big fourth-quarter lead against Houston the other night. So, he said, he "felt like it was an opportunity for me to assert myself."
Sullinger's impact is impossible to ignore at this point. For the season, he's plus-16 in plus/minus over 368 minutes of floor time. In the 448 minutes he's been off the court, Boston is minus-95.
Despite going up against some of the top centers in the league recently, Sullinger has more than held his own. For the season, Boston's offensive rating is five points above its season average when Sullinger is on the floor and its defensive rating is 1 ½ points below the season average with him on the court. Sullinger is one of Boston's only regulars who has a positive net differential.
What's more, in five games since joining the starting lineup, Sullinger is averaging 15 points and 10.2 rebounds over 31.8 minutes per game. He's plus-19 in that span, even though the Celtics are 2-3.
There's no hiding it. Until Rondo is back on the floor, Sullinger is Boston's best all-around player. Sure, there's plenty of room for growth in his game, but he's having the most tangible impact of any player at both ends of the floor.
And his attitude has been phenomenal as well. After Wednesday's game, Sullinger didn't toss the team's guards under the bus for allowing dribble penetration that led to early layups and a big lead for the Grizzlies. Instead he suggested that he misplayed the help and aided Memphis' early runs.
Then there are those playoff aspirations. Sullinger is smart and he understands how the rebuilding process works in the NBA. Often you have to be (real) bad to get (real) good.
But what fun is that? Sullinger likely would be quick to point out that you can find good value in the back half of the draft if you play your cards right. After all, he was picked at, ahem, No. 21. Sure, there were concerns about his back that led to him sliding to that spot in the 2012 draft, but he's proof that you don't have to rely on the ping-pong balls to net a future All-Star.
So Sullinger is going to keep trying to will his team to victory and straight into the playoffs. If he continues to play like he has, there's a slight chance he'll be able to do that -- much to the chagrin of some of his fan base.