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Can Sullinger be Boston's X factor?

Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON -- Hours after the Boston Celtics made a splash at February's trade deadline by acquiring Isaiah Thomas, coach Brad Stevens met with reporters before the team's afternoon practice in Sacramento and there was a hint of frustration evident in his voice.

Stevens would soon reveal that Jared Sullinger had been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his foot, an injury that the team announced a couple days later was expected to end his 2014-15 season.

For a Celtics team that had been trending upward in early February, the loss of Sullinger was a stomach punch. You could have made the case then that Sullinger was Boston's best remaining individual player in the aftermath of trades that shipped out Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green and, just as the team seemed to be finding itself, the Celtics were losing another impact player.

Fast forward two and a half months and so much has changed. The arrival of Thomas only further invigorated the Celtics as the team embarked on a furious playoff push. Sullinger, originally declared out for the season, made a surprising return to action earlier this month, but has struggled to return to form.

As the seventh-seeded Celtics prepare to battle the second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in a first-round series, no one quite knows what to expect from Sullinger -- not even the player himself. If Sullinger can elevate to the standards we've seen in the past, he could be a legitimate X-factor off the Boston bench. But Sullinger could just as easily be a limited role player whose minutes get squeezed as postseason rotations tighten.

"That's the NBA for you -- I just have to be ready to play," Sullinger said after playing 28 minutes in Boston's regular-season finale on Wednesday night in Milwaukee. "Just gotta be a pro's pro. At any given moment, whether there's 5 seconds on the clock, 3 seconds, 10 minutes, I gotta get out there and play. Gotta do what I'm capable of doing."

So what can Sullinger do at this stage of his recovery?

He smiled and said, "We'll see on Sunday."

In seven appearances off the Boston bench since his return on April 3, Sullinger has averaged 5 points and 3.7 rebounds over 14.9 minutes per game. He's shooting just 31 percent from the field (13 of 42) and 18.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc (2-of-11).

Sullinger said he dropped about 20 pounds while rehabbing and his conditioning has been better than he probably expected after missing 24 games. But his touch, his rhythm, and his general comfort level on the court simply hasn't returned yet.

Stevens has had to balance getting Sullinger increased floor time recently with Boston's desire to win games as part of its playoff push. In Wednesday's finale, with both teams locked into their playoff seedings, Sullinger played 28 minutes -- or roughly a quarter of his total minutes since his return. He reminded us of his value when he abused Miles Plumlee on the blocks while producing an and-one layup late in the first half, then canned some key jumpers as Boston pulled away in the fourth quarter. Sullinger finished with 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting with four rebounds, four assists, three blocks, and a steal.

Now the question is can Sullinger help this team against the Cavaliers, even while he works his way back?

"I think there's a couple of factors that are involved [with Sullinger's return]," said Stevens. "No. 1 is it takes some time to get back into the flow and rhythm of things. It's best if you can do it in three straight days of practice, but you just don't get that opportunity. Then the second part is, our second unit plays a little differently than it did since [Sullinger has] been back. We're a little bit more spread out, a little bit quicker moving the ball, little bit faster to make our next pass. We've been really getting into the paint by the drive, not by the post, or by the roll as much with that group. That's something where we'll figure out how to best to utilize that and maximize that, but, right now, it's about him continuing to feel more comfortable."

Maybe no player stands to benefit more from this brief break before the start of the first-round series than Sullinger. But can he impact these games with his presence?

After all, Sullinger's advanced numbers over the past seven games are not much to rave about. The team's defensive rating in particular has spiked when he's on the court (Boston is allowing 102.7 points per 100 possessions with Sullinger in the game and that number drops to 96.2 when he's off the floor).

For Sullinger, who was recovering from back surgery when Boston made the playoffs during his rookie season in 2013, there is excitement for this first real trip to the postseason. There's excitement in playing two hours outside his native Columbus and to potentially have some Ohio State fans supporting him on the road.

Sullinger desires to leave his stamp on this series, but it's unclear if his body will allow him. The 23-year-old big man is embracing the opportunity to compete. And he's confident in a team that posted a 14-10 record in his absence.

"We're going to give it our all," Sullinger said. "With this team, the type of team that we have, the way that we fight. We don't care who's stepping out there on the court. We're going to go out there and we're going to fight. Our main objective is to win a seven-game series."

For Boston to have any chance at achieving that goal, they're almost certainly going to need to get as much out of Sullinger as possible.