WALTHAM — The last time a rookie was in the Celtics starting lineup for the season-opening game, Paul Pierce had 19 points and nine rebounds in a 103-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors Feb. 5, 1999.
It has taken nearly 13 years for another rookie to emerge with a chance to be an opening day starter, and when the Celtics visit Miami Tuesday, Jared Sullinger, 20, could make his professional debut among the starters.
Coach Doc Rivers said on Friday the Celtics will not go with a set group of starters this season. But Sullinger brings most of the qualities the Celtics are seeking and, even if he is among the reserves in the opener, it will likely be just a matter of time before he becomes a regular.
“We pretty much know,” Rivers said of the starters. “Experience, size — it depends on the night. I don’t think we’re going to have a set lineup this year, I really don’t. We have three that we’re going to use. We can move it around.”
Sullinger was a starter in five of the eight preseason games – only Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo had more starts. Brandon Bass is the incumbent at power forward, and has a major edge in experience. Bass is also a more reliable shooter, but Rivers wants that quality coming off the bench.
“Brandon is pick and pop, but Jared is, too,’’ Rivers said. “[Sullinger] is a better shooter than people give him credit for. Brandon knows the personnel, he knows everyone in the league, and Jared doesn’t. With Jared and Kevin on the floor, we have two great passers, and that’s nice when you’re running your offense. You don’t have to have a big on one side of the floor to make a play. And Jared’s the better rebounder.”
Bass led the team in offensive rebounding last season and performed well as a starter in the playoffs, both defensively and offensively. Sullinger, though, added another dimension to the inside game during the preseason.
“We still have to rebound better, whether it’s a small lineup or a big lineup,” Rivers said. “I don’t think we rebounded very well in the preseason. So, we’re not going anywhere without rebounding. And we’re not going anywhere if we turn the ball over. I don’t care how many skilled players, how deep we are — if we continue to not rebound, if we continue to turn the ball over, you can give us 15 skilled players and we’re still going to lose. We have to rebound. We have to be a great rebounding team.”
Sullinger had the collegiate reputation of a first-option, post-up scorer. But Sullinger has been comfortable in a complementary role with the Celtics.
“It’s different,” Sullinger said after practice Friday. “Like I said, from being the go-to guy and now taking a back seat to some greats, it’s only a humbling experience. At the same time, I’m learning every day. I’m unselfish. The goal is to win, that’s what I pride myself on.
“I’m definitely a rookie. I have a lot to learn around here, I’m still learning. I have rookie days all the time.”
Asked if he would fit into the starting lineup, Sullinger replied: “Not really, I don’t feel – at the same time, whoever Doc has on the floor is what we’re rolling with.”
Talking about his shooting range, Sullinger said: “I always had it. Obviously, I had to take a back seat and play the 5 [in college], so my goal was to score on the post. On top of that, every time I touched the ball it was a double-team. I was blessed enough to get doubled and help my teammates score that way. I took a blow for the team and understood when I was doubled down low it opened things up for my teammates.”
Rivers is attempting to keep the opener in perspective. The Celtics’ last competitive contest was the Game 7 Eastern Conference finals loss to the Heat.
“Honestly, it’d be nice to win,” Rivers said. “But it wouldn’t feel good because of last year, it would feel good because now we’re 1-0. Honestly, for me, it goes no further than that. We blew them out two or three times [in the regular season] and they beat us [in the playoffs]. None of that really matters when the playoffs start, it just makes you have a better chance of getting home court.”
Asked about Ray Allen, who joined the Heat as a free agent, Rivers replied: “I don’t think it’s Ray, honestly, I think it’s more the Heat. Maybe several guys want to play against Ray and Ray may want to play against several guys, but this isn’t a Ray versus the Celtics game. If it becomes that, we’re going to lose by a lot of points because, as good as Ray is, I know of two guys for sure, probably three guys on that team who are a lot better than Ray. And if we’re focusing in on Ray, we’re going to lose by 40.”
Rivers said he attempted to contact Allen during the free agency period.
“I tried,” Rivers said. “I’m not going to get into Ray Allen stuff. Ray was great when he was here. If Ray wants to talk, we’re going to just let Ray keep talking, that’s probably better for all of us.”