Throughout the season, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has urged Jared Sullinger to take more 3-pointers, an ongoing experiment designed to add a new wrinkle to the 6-foot-9-inch forward’s offensive game.
It’s an experiment that has yielded mixed results, some of which haven’t been so appealing.
Before the Celtics’ 99-90 loss to the Toronto Raptors Wednesday night at TD Garden, Sullinger was 6 of 32 from 3-point range this month.
But Sullinger’s confidence never wavered, and he showed how beneficial the deep shot could be to expanding his game.
The Celtics trailed, 84-75, when Sullinger sank three consecutive 3-pointers. It anchored his 19-point outburst in the fourth quarter, as he tried his best to pull the Celtics out of what seemed like an inescapable hole.
His third 3-pointer of the fourth quarter brought the Celtics within 4, as they trailed 88-84 with 4:47 to play.
Over the next minute, he knocked down three free throws, completing a run of 12 straight points to pull the Celtics within 5, 92-87, with 3:41 remaining.
Sullinger finished with 26 points and shot 4 for 6 from beyond the arc.
“I believe in myself,” Sullinger said. “I really don’t care what the naysayers say. I can care less. I’m just trying to expand my game and if I’m open, I’m going to shoot. I was just in a rhythm.”
Sullinger said his right index finger, which he fractured in a game against Oklahoma City at the end of January, was feeling better as well.
“Those couple days we had off really helped me get the mobility in the finger and help it heal,” Sullinger said. “It was constantly getting hit.”
It helps that Sullinger has a coach and teammates who believe in him, too.
Stevens often has been labeled as an ‘analytics guy,’ and has admitted to being intrigued by advanced statistics.
But the Sullinger’s numbers from the 3-point line hardly indicate success. However, in certain situations, Stevens acknowledged it’s best to rely on what he sees on the court.
Going against Toronto’s pair of towering forwards, Jonas Valanciunas (6 feet 11 inches) and Amir Johnson (6-9), Stevens said he knew the Celtics wouldn’t beat them inside.
“I still think, and maybe this is why I’m not as an analytics guy as everyone portrays me to be, I still believe in him shooting,” Stevens said.
“I’ve seen him shoot, I believe in his form, I believe in how much he shoots and doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t when he’s not making them – he shouldn’t find other options and alternatives.”
The Celtics started the final quarter trailing, 77-62, before Sullinger caught fire. He had entered the quarter with 7 points, shooting just 3 for 11 (1 for 3 from deep).
Chris Johnson and Amir Johnson traded baskets, and Kelly Olynyk’s 3-pointer cut it to 79-67.
Sullinger kept the Celtics’ offense running while they played without Rajon Rondo (9 points, 15 assists), who got hit in the forehead in the third quarter and received nine stitches between his eyes.
After Olynyk’s 3, Sullinger scored 7 straight points to the Raptors’ 2.
Rondo returned in the fourth quarter while Sullinger was attempting a pair of free throws. He missed his first but hit his second, cutting the Celtics’ deficit to 81-74 with 8:04 to play.
Once Rondo returned, Sullinger’s game clicked. All three of his fourth-quarter 3-pointers came off feeds from the crafty point guard. Earlier in the second quarter, Sullinger sank his first 3, with an assist from Rondo, to give the Celtics a 35-33 lead.
While Rondo was happy with Sullinger’s success beyond the arc Wednesday night, he also was satisfied with his entire performance, such as his outlet passes and hustle in transition.
“I like playing on the court with Sully,” Rondo said. “I told Brad, I wanted to play with Sully as much as possible, not as a knock to any of our other bigs, but one thing that Sully does that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet is he’s probably the best outlet passer we have.
“And when we got back in it in the second quarter, whenever he came in, we made a run, and it wasn’t because he made 3s. It was because he got the ball off the rim pretty quickly up the court and we were able to turn it into transition buckets. Threes come and go.”
And as for what helped Sullinger’s shooting most Wednesday night?
“I think it’s because he cut his hair, he made a couple more threes tonight. I told him that,” Rondo joked. “It worked, he listened. He’s put the time and effort in as well, so give him a lot of credit. He carried us throughout the stretch in the fourth quarter, but we came up short without getting stops.”Anthony Gulizia can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @gulizia_a