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Celtics’ Doc Rivers working on the mental game

Celtics rookie Jared Sullinger shows the crowd his rebounding skill during an exhibition in front of a cathedral in Milan Saturday in advance of a preseason game in the city Sunday.

Antonio Calanni/associated press

Celtics rookie Jared Sullinger shows the crowd his rebounding skill during an exhibition in front of a cathedral in Milan Saturday in advance of a preseason game in the city Sunday.

MILAN — There is a method to Doc Rivers’s hands-off approach to his team the past few days on their European journey. The Celtics coach is spending more time during training camp on the mental approach of his team and less on actual on-court performance.

He was rather blasé about Friday’s 97-91 preseason-opening loss to Fenerbahce Ulker of Turkey, but he stressed during a wide-ranging interview with Italian media Saturday afternoon that he is working feverishly on preparing his players for success by instilling confidence.

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One of his main subjects is center Darko Milicic, who has traveled around the NBA, tabbed as a potential star after being the second overall pick in 2003. Now merely a role player, Milicic has struggled with confidence over the past few years and was squarely in coach Rick Adelman’s doghouse last season, prompting the Minnesota Timberwolves to waive him through the amnesty clause.

“He just needs a chance. He just needs a team that wants him to do his job without asking him to be the No. 2 pick in the draft,” Rivers said. “We’re just asking him to be part of a group and part of a team. We give him roles on the team. I think he likes the roles that we’ve given him and he didn’t feel any extra pressure. So far, so good. We just have to keep him in that frame of mind that he’s in now.”

Milicic has been bogged down by the pressure and expectations of being selected so high in a draft class that has become one of the best in recent memory.

“You can see that he gets frustrated easy,” Rivers said. “So we’re trying to eliminate those episodes.

“Our thing right now with Darko is to play forward. From being around for a short time, as a coach I can probably feel he’s played his career backwards. He lives in the past a lot and we’re trying to get him to live in the future.

“I told him [Friday], the only time I’ll take you out is if you make a mistake and make another mistake because you’re thinking about the last mistake. I won’t take you out for making a mistake. So hopefully that works.”

Rivers has built a strong bond with point guard Rajon Rondo and last season called him the most intelligent player he ever has coached. But with Rondo assuming the leadership role on this year’s club, Rivers wants him to accept more responsibility.

“Basketball-wise we want him to make his jump shots a little bit more, we want him to make his free throws,” Rivers said. “But leadership is the wrong word, it’s more being the team general on the floor. That’s where I want him to really improve. I’m really pushing him this year to think like me on the floor. The better he does that, I can sit on the sideline and maybe have a cup of coffee or something during the game.

“I just think it’s really important for him because of our offense. He doesn’t need to look to the sideline for every set; he can feel it, he knows it, having him draw up plays more. I think it’s a good progression for him.”

.   .   .

Jared Sullinger scored 16 points in his NBA debut, looking comfortable around the basket and flowing well with Rondo on pick-and-rolls. With Chris Wilcox out indefinitely with back spasms and Jeff Green playing small forward, there is opportunity for Sullinger to make an impression.

He was the first rookie off the bench Friday and looked as if he had been there before.

“You just have to know your personnel, as long as you know who you are playing with on the floor, you won’t look bad,” Sullinger said. “And you’ve just got to understand that you gotta take steps back. Sometimes I am going to be the fifth option and I have to understand that and keep playing my role.

“Like Kevin [Garnett] told me, if you come in here and play hard, you will play. Pretty much that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been trying to feed off of Kevin. Basically I have been under him since Day 1, always asking him questions. Mentally you’ve got to understand that you’ve got to let your ego down. I never had an ego, but you’ve still got to let your ego down and understand that you’re playing with some greats.”

.   .   .

Rivers was asked whether the Celtics should be targeting the Heat and the Lakers in their quest for a championship, “Just Miami,” Rivers said, “The Lakers have won nothing. They just have a lot of players. A lot of good players.” . . . Sunday’s opponent, Emporio Armani Milano, features former San Antonio Spur Malik Hairston, ex-St. John’s guard Omar Cook, former Kansas swingman Keith Langford, and ex-Alabama big man Richard Hendrix. They last played Wednesday, suffering a 67-64 loss to Virtus Bologna. They are 1-1 in Series A of the Euro League.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe
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