BOSTON -- In punishing Jared Sullinger for being tardy to Sunday's walkthrough, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens stressed that he didn't want to make a big deal out of the infraction and called it an isolated incident.
Sullinger was removed from Sunday's starting lineup and came off the bench in both halves of Boston's 83-75 loss to the Miami Heat at TD Garden. The third-year big man played only 19 minutes and contributed just seven points on 3-of-11 shooting with as many turnovers (3) as rebounds.
While acknowledging that Sunday's incident might indeed be a mere minor infraction, it's also a small reminder that the Celtics need more from Sullinger, both on and off the court.
Stevens covered for Sullinger by suggesting that he was only "four or five minutes" late and pinned the tardiness on traffic (though none of his teammates seemed to have trouble navigating to the Garden on a quiet Sunday morning).
For Sullinger, being late was simply not a good look. While he is only 22, Sullinger is one of the most veteran members of this team, his three-season tenure trailing only Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass. He is essentially a veteran presence, and when he arrived late, Stevens had to assert that it would not be tolerated in a locker room full of impressionable young players.
Ever since the Celtics overhauled their roster and dealt away both Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, one could make a case that Sullinger is Boston's most talented remaining player. If nothing else, he has the potential to be the best player on this rebuilding team and this should be an opportunity for him to assert himself as a focal point.
Unfortunately for Sullinger, his transgression Sunday came at a time when he's struggling on the court. During the 16 games in January, Sullinger couldn't find his touch from the perimeter (21.3 percent beyond the 3-point arc), had consistency issues on the defensive end and finished minus-56 in plus/minus (a particularly jarring number when you consider what a plus/minus darling Sullinger typically has been, including being plus-21 over the first two months of the season).
Make no mistake, Boston's team struggles should not be pinned on Sullinger. Outside of a successful four-game stretch during a six-game road trip late in January, the Celtics endured a tough month, particularly while adjusting to the overhauled roster. Sullinger's numbers have dipped as Boston's first unit struggles as a whole.
Sullinger's floor time did creep above 30 minutes per game in January, showing his increased role after Boston's roster overhaul. But that uptick in playing time hasn't quite been matched with an increase in total production. Sullinger does lead the team in scoring (14 points per game) and rebounds per game (8), but there's an opportunity here for Sullinger to develop into a consistent double-double player and showcase his ability to hurt teams both in the paint and on the perimeter.
But Sullinger has to embrace this opportunity. Instead of being in a situation where he's a few minutes late to a walkthrough, he has to make sure he's one of the first people in the gym. Sullinger has to embrace being a leader beyond his age.
Before Sunday's incident, Stevens has pledged full support to Sullinger as he works through his on-court slump.
"No. 1 is trust him," Stevens said when asked about how to help Sullinger through his slump. "Especially if [the slumping player is] a guy that’s a proven to be able to put the ball through the net in the past, because, there’s going to be ups and downs and there’s going to be immediate reaction to the downs. ... The bottom line is just trust him to make the next shot and then get in [the practice facility] and work on it. Get in here and spend some extra time shooting."
Stevens noted how Houston superstar James Harden had endured a rough shooting night when the Rockets won Friday night, but found a way to impact the game.
"Obviously, Sully missed a couple [Friday], but we had a lot of guys that had their struggles throughout the course of the year, and that’s part of every team," Stevens said. "The best player on the court [Harden on Friday] was 4-for-21, so there’s going to be some days like that for everybody."
There are bumps in the road for every player, especially the ones that are in the spotlight for their teams. It's how they respond to that adversity that shows what the player is made of.
Sunday's incident is another chance for Sullinger to mature and grow as a basketball player.