TORONTO — Celtics coach Brad Stevens steadfastly said Jared Sullinger likely wouldn’t play Saturday night against the Raptors after laboring for three minutes in his return Friday after a 24-game absence.
The coach claimed he wanted to get Sullinger practice time and hold the burly forward out until perhaps Wednesday at Detroit.
But there was Sullinger, checking into the lineup with 10:14 left in the second quarter and the Celtics trailing by 12. Sullinger didn’t score but was involved in one of the game’s most critical plays and also pulled down seven rebounds with two steals in the Celtics’ 117-116 overtime win at Air Canada Centre.
Sullinger played 12 minutes and began to show signs of approaching basketball shape. He forced a pair of turnovers. He took a charge and harnessed four offensive rebounds.
“I felt good, I felt better,” said Sullinger, who before Friday last played Feb. 11. “I got my second wind, finally. So everything is good.”
With 4.9 seconds left in overtime, Sullinger was in on the final play, presumably for offensive rebounding. Instead he received the inbounds pass from Marcus Smart with the Celtics trailing by 1 and took a dribble toward the basket, looking to attempt the final shot. Coach Brad Stevens saved him by calling a timeout with 2.6 seconds left.
“When I drove, I heard the whistle — that’s why I just threw the shot up because I was trying to get two shots,” he said. “I didn’t know if they had a foul to give or not.”
When asked about his offense — scoreless in two games — Sullinger said: “I’m not worried about the shots. My goal is to rebound the basketball and make winning plays.”
Said Stevens: “I thought he looked better. I told you [Friday not] to gauge him on three minutes. [Twelve minutes] was about right. I thought he was hesitant offensively. He looked a little rusty offensively, like you would expect.”
Sizing up Thomas
The Milwaukee Bucks went right at Isaiah Thomas defensively during their victory over the Celtics at TD Garden on Friday.
Coach Jason Kidd shuttled O.J. Mayo and Michael Carter-Williams to post up the 5-foot-9-inch Thomas and it was effective. The question is whether Kidd has discovered a way to neutralize Thomas’s offensive impact by forcing him to play post defense and relent as many points as he scores.
“Historically, he’s been very good in the post defensively,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Thomas. “My first inclination when he first got here was we’re going to have to figure that out and then you start watching film and start looking at how he’s been in the post in the past and he’s been very good and hard to score on. Sometimes small guys, for whatever reason, are hard to score on down there.
“[Friday] night they had a lot of success against all of our guards. They had a lot of success against the Bulls’ guards the night before. It’s a problem. That was as good of a defense performance [from Milwaukee] as I’ve seen in a long time.”
Thomas said he knows teams will try to target his size.
“Yeah, I expect everybody to do it; they’ve been doing it my whole career,” he said. “Mayo scored on me two or three times in a row and that was probably the biggest thing. Other than that, they made plays. Me, I’m just going to hold my ground.
“My job is to keep my guy in front of me and make them shoot over me. All I do is hold my ground and use my strength.”
Thomas said he has always used his low center of gravity to make players uncomfortable.
“Since I was a young boy I’ve been in the weight room,” he said. “I’ve always been somewhat strong. Milwaukee tried to take advantage of all of our guys but we did a pretty good job.”
Rivals get healthy
Paul George’s sudden return to the Indiana Pacers’ lineup Sunday against the Miami Heat and Dwyane Wade’s return to the Heat lineup for Saturday’s game against the Detroit Pistons are two developments that could affect the Celtics’ chances of making the playoffs.
“I really don’t [pay attention],” Stevens said. “I heard Paul was coming back. That was the popular talking point at our pregame meal but that was more of the curiosity of everybody seeing Paul come back. But I haven’t heard an update on Wade. I just think you control what you can control.
“We’ve got a tough road right now with these [five] games. We’ve got to make sure we focus on us and play as well as we can.”
Toronto was without Kyle Lowry with back spasms and ace rebounder Amir Johnson with a sprained right ankle.
The Raptors have the Atlantic Division title cinched but are playing for seeding. After Saturday’s loss, they are 1½ games behind the Chicago Bulls for the third seed and one game ahead of the Washington Wizards for the fourth seed.
The question for Toronto is whether it would prefer to face Washington or Milwaukee in the first round.
The third seed would likely assure the Bucks as their opponent. Fourth or fifth means Washington. Raptors coach Dwane Casey said his team can’t afford to rest players, especially with injuries to Lowry and Johnson.
“That’s something you can’t panic about,” Casey said. “We’re not in position [to rest].
“We’ve got to get a lot of things fixed offensively, defensively, [including] our rotations with Amir and Kyle still out. We’re not in the situation to [rest]. We’re still fighting for home court.”