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WALTHAM — With increased depth on the team and the drafting of rookie Jared Sullinger, Celtics coach Doc Rivers is pondering changes to what was seemingly a cemented starting lineup.
The starting five was projected as Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, and Kevin Garnett. But on Wednesday, after the team’s first practice in six days because of their trip to Europe, Rivers said he is contemplating placing Sullinger or Darko Milicic in the lineup to replace Bass or perhaps even shuffling starters depending on matchups.
On Sunday, Rivers started Sullinger in an exhibition game against Emporio Armani Milano in Italy, and the rookie has made quite an impression in training camp. Rivers said he is open to anything that will boost the versatility of the bench, and the addition of a pick-and-roll shooter like Bass may be a strong consideration.
“I’m going to try [Sullinger] a couple of games, and then I’ll throw Brandon in and then I’ll put Darko in a couple of times,” Rivers said. “You can read into it whatever you want. But there’s been no decision made on anything.”
Rivers reiterated that Sullinger has caught the organization by surprise with his maturity and ability to learn the offense quickly. Sullinger dropped in the draft because of rumors about potential back surgery, but he has not had any issues during camp.
“He doesn’t think like a rookie, he thinks like a veteran,” Rivers said. “He plays a great pace. He’s one of our best rebounders. He can pass the ball, so he does a lot of things that help our team. And so we want to keep those guys around.”
Asked if he would consider starting Sullinger, Rivers replied, “I said that when we drafted him, but I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t really want to get into who’s starting, who’s not yet. We’ll see.
“I’m not worried about our starting lineup. I’m far more worried about our second lineup, and that’s the lineup that we’re going to keep moving guys around.”
Rivers also brought up the possibility of moving Garnett to power forward in stretches and starting Milicic at center.
“In the first half of the year, I don’t know if that’s a bad thing so Kevin wouldn’t have to have a wrestling match the entire season with the bigs,” the coach said.
“There’s a lot of thoughts. We may go to a transitional starting lineup, having three different lineups. So we put a lot of thought into it. We’ll figure it out.”
The players seem to be taking it all in stride. With the added depth acquired in the offseason, the veteran players have been pleasantly surprised with the team’s versatility. Sullinger brings physicality and post-up potential at power forward that Bass does not.
“My job is to play,” said Rondo. “Whether Doc throws an eighth-grader out there, I’ll try to make his job easier and bring the best out of him.
“Brandon has handled it very well, he’s mature. It’s not set in stone, but he’s played terrific for us. I think with that second lineup, he rebounded the ball tremendously in the last game, shot the ball extremely well.
“Whatever is comfortable for the team, I think he’s willing to accept his role, whether he starts or he comes off the bench. But I think this shows a lot about Jared.”
Sullinger and Milicic have been the two biggest surprises of camp, and their roles are sure to expand from what was projected. Sullinger was expected to compete with Chris Wilcox for minutes to back up Bass. But Wilcox has yet to participate in a preseason game because of a sore back. Milicic was expected to battle Jason Collins for backup center minutes but seems to have established a decided edge.
“This is the most flexibility we’ve had since I’ve been here as a Celtic,” Rondo said. “[Sullinger] is probably the smartest rookie I’ve had since I’ve been here. He’s very intelligent, a high basketball IQ, and he’s unselfish. He doesn’t need a play called for him. He’s been getting the points off the dirty work.”
As for Milicic, Rivers said, “His lungs need to be expanded, but his game fits our team. That’s what I preached to him every day. You don’t have to be this super whatever, you just have to be a great fit for our team. And I think he is.
“I love passing [big men], and we’ve gone from one last year in Kevin to three immediately, and Collins is a pretty darned good passer because he’s so smart.”