MIAMI — The Celtics, old and new, want to dispel the notion that the rest of this season is merely for experimental purposes. After Sunday’s 100-84 loss to the Heat, the Celtics are the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind the Nets.
The newest Celtics — Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, and Brandan Wright — said at their news conference Friday that they fully expect to foster the Celtics’ postseason push, and Jared Sullinger agreed. The Celtics have no intention of tanking.
“I can look around the room and honestly tell you that nobody in here enjoys losing and nobody wants to lose,” said Sullinger, in his third season with the Celtics. “And nobody wants to lose on purpose. That’s never going to be our goal. We want to make the playoffs. We want to be able to make a push, and I believe we have a great group of guys in there to do that.”
When asked if he was irritated by those who consider the Celtics a lottery team without Rajon Rondo, Sullinger said, “Yeah, it definitely upsets me. Although [Rondo] was one hell of a playmaker, we just have to change the game and play the way we need to play. It’s definitely going to be a fun challenge. At the end of the game, end of a quarter, to get somebody going, we don’t have to pitch [the ball] out to one person [to facilitate], we have a whole team to get our offense going.”
The question is how long it will take the new players to become acclimated. On Sunday, Nelson was the first point guard off the bench to relieve Marcus Smart, and Crowder and Wright made their Celtic debuts together to begin the second quarter, Crowder at small forward and Wright at point forward.
Nelson was 1 of 6 for 3 points with 3 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 turnovers in 20 minutes. Wright tallied 6 points and three rebounds in 13 minutes, and Crowder grabbed two rebounds in seven minutes.
The revamped Celtics are loaded with players who have played significant minutes this season, leaving coach Brad Stevens the difficult responsibility of assigning playing time.
“You could argue for 11 to start, probably,” Stevens said. “That’s a good thing. We can’t let our depth become something where, as we figure this out, becomes a detriment. Our depth has to be a great strength. I feel good about us moving forward. We’re going to have to be a team in the truest sense of the word.”
Smart got his first NBA start and had 3 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 turnovers in 28 minutes. He is not a natural point guard, but the Celtics have been pleased with his development at the position. He has a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and has proven to be a strong defender and capable passer.
After Rondo was traded to the Mavericks on Thursday, Evan Turner started at point guard in Friday’s 114-98 win over the Timberwolves.
“I thought the other day the starting group played pretty well and Marcus was a little bit more comfortable himself as a point instead of playing off of the ball,” Stevens said. “And I think Evan’s versatility allows him to play with anybody. Evan’s going to play a lot.”
Turner had 7 points and three assists in 26 minutes against the Heat.
The Celtics drafted Smart sixth overall in June, and the moment he became a Celtic, the feeling was he was picked to replace Rondo. Smart played shooting guard and even some small forward in college, but the Celtics like his ballhandling skills.
“That’s what he’s basically been most of the time,” Stevens said of Smart as a point guard. “We’ve got what I consider multiple guys who are combos that can play both [positions] but three guys who are point guards first. We’ll see how these guys complement each other. We’re all guessing a little bit with the new guys.”
Young makes trip
Rookie James Young made the trip and participated in noncontact drills at shootaround, an indication his separated right shoulder is feeling better. Young was injured during a NBADL game Dec. 10 and could be back by the end of the month.
“Hopefully he’s cleared for physicality if the rehab continues to go well,” Stevens said. “We still have to decide if he’s going to be good once contact happens.”
No rush to name captain
Stevens said he will not pick a team captain to replace Rondo. Avery Bradley has been with the team the longest, while Jeff Green, at 28, is the leading scorer and most established player. “That stuff sorts itself out over the long run,” Stevens said. “One of the things that great teams do is everybody takes ownership. We’re going to figure that stuff out.” . . . Miami’s Dwyane Wade missed the game after bumping knees with Wizards center Nene on Friday. Chris Bosh missed his fifth straight game with a left calf strain. Coach Erik Spoelstra said Bosh could play Christmas Day against LeBron James and the Cavaliers . . . Roxbury, Mass., native Shabazz Napier did not play for the Heat. He has appeared in 25 games, but has just 47 assists to 41 turnovers as a reserve point guard.