WALTHAM, Mass. — Jared Sullinger was watching TV over the summer when he heard someone say if the Boston Celtics relied too much on Jeff Green, they would only win two games.
Sullinger recorded the comments on his phone and made sure Green saw them.
“That same guy is probably biting his tongue right now because he feels stupid,” Sullinger said.
After trading their two biggest stars and Coach Doc Rivers over the summer, the Celtics opened with four straight losses that seemed to confirm expectations they would compete – perhaps intentionally – for a top spot in the draft lottery.
But Boston then rattled off four straight wins, including a victory over the defending champion Miami Heat, to show they aren’t throwing away the season. A loss Wednesday night stopped the streak but the attitude on the team has been consistent.
“Y’all were talking about the lottery. We didn’t even think about that,” Sullinger said Thursday. “We don’t care about that. We want to win, we want to make the playoffs and we want to make a run. At the end of the day that was something that you talked about, not us.”
The most decorated franchise in the NBA, the Celtics built a dynasty that crumbled after winning its 16th championship in 1986 behind the Big Three of Kevin McHale, Larry Bird and Robert Parish. After watching them all grow old at the same time, the team went through a long rebuilding period and Danny Ainge, a player on the 1986 team who is now the general manager, said he wouldn’t let that happen again.
So soon after the New Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen won it all in 2008 – ending the longest championship drought in franchise history – and returned to the NBA finals two years later, Ainge was already looking to rebuild. Allen left in the summer of 2012, and after one last run with Garnett, Pierce and point guard Rajon Rondo, Ainge had seen enough.
He allowed Rivers to leave for the Clippers, and traded Garnett and Pierce to the Nets. Butler Coach Brad Stevens, who had no NBA experience, replaced Rivers and took over a roster that included Rondo, who is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, and a mix of young potential and older fill-ins.
The way Ainge put the team together left little reason to doubt he was focused on potential top draft picks Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. Then they lost their first four games, though three were on the road, and all of them were competitive.
But just as quickly, everything turned around.
“It takes time to develop chemistry,” Sullinger said. “It takes time to develop a team.”
Boston’s four wins came over three teams that have a losing record plus the Heat, who were stunned when Green hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Stevens said the Celtics played better basketball over that stretch, turning the ball over less and playing with a better pace.
“Just guys feeling more comfort with their playing opportunities,” he said. “We started to fit together a little bit better. Throughout that four-game win streak, that’s the way we were playing.”
Stevens said he’s had no trouble tuning out the talk of tanking the season, saying dismissively, “I don’t care about that.” But Sullinger said if it helps motivate the team, that’s even better.
“Oh, we definitely wanted to shut you guys up. Definitely,” he said.