The Celtics say they saw this coming, that Jared Sullinger was going to need back surgery sooner or later. But when he reported having spasms earlier this week, specialists gave the team really only one option Friday: operate now.
It meant that Sullinger wouldn’t play again this season, but the benefit, the Celtics were told, was that Sullinger’s ailing back would likely be fixed permanently.
“The decision to do surgery with Jared was simply for the long-term benefit of his career,” said president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, before the Celtics tipped off against the Orlando Magic at the Garden.
Sullinger underwent successful lumbar disk surgery Friday at New England Baptist Hospital, under the direction of team physician Brian McKeon. Sullinger is expected to be out until training camp. The rookie forward out of Ohio State played in 45 games, averaging 6.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game.
Sullinger is the second Celtic — and the second key Celtic — to be lost in the last six days to a season-ending injury. Rajon Rondo’s season ended Sunday after it was revealed he has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
“Those were two key guys who were a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish, but the season continues,” said forward Jeff Green. “Guys have just got to step up.”
The Celtics did again, by beating the Magic, 97-84. It was the Celtics’ third straight win — all without Rondo — and pushed their record to .500.
Without Sullinger, several other Celtics picked up the rebounding slack. Paul Pierce had 11 rebounds to go with 14 points, and Kevin Garnett added 10 rebounds along with 14 points.
Ainge said he hasn’t lost faith in the Celtics, despite losing Sullinger and Rondo.
“We’re not ready to cave in yet,” he said. “It’s going to take more than that.”
Ainge added, “I think that we’re going to have to win in a different way without Jared and without Rajon, but we’ll see. We’ll see what we have.”
One option is rookie center Fab Melo, who made his season debut against the Magic, playing the final 2:38. Melo, drafted 22d overall, didn’t attempt a shot and is unlikely to receive much playing time down the road, Ainge and coach Doc Rivers said before the game.
Back issues were the red flags raised with regard to Sullinger leading up to last year’s draft, and they were what made him fall to the Celtics late in the first round.
It was those very issues, Rivers said, that led to Sullinger needing surgery.
“We knew this could happen,” Rivers said. “We knew a month before the draft that this could happen and at some point probably would happen. We were hoping it would be a summer thing rather than in the middle of the season, but it happened now.
“He was playing great. I think the good news is we know he can play, and we know he’ll be a very good player, and in the long run this will make him healthier.”
Said Green, “He knows what’s at stake. It’s more than just basketball. It’s his life. This can effect how his body reacts down the line.”
Rivers said this surgery does not make the Celtics rethink drafting Sullinger.
“No, I think we’re very happy to have drafted him,” Rivers said.
Rivers said the Celtics would “definitely be a small-ball team” from now on. He said they would start big, with Brandon Bass and Garnett, but then, “we just have to put our five best players on the floor. We’re going to have to be creative.”
The Celtics will also have to rebound more as a unit, and Rivers said that he’s especially going to lean on Green. “When he’s in, he’s going to have to rebound,” Rivers said.
It bodes well for the Celtics, Rivers said, that there aren’t many “big” teams in the NBA.
Rivers did suggest that Sullinger could take classes at Ohio State to finish up his degree while he’s rehabbing his injury.
“Jared is an old soul,” Rivers said. “It’s not like he needs a summer league or anything. He’ll be ready by summer league, but I don’t envision him playing in summer league. He doesn’t need summer league.”
But the Celtics could use him now, although their win Friday showed again — for the third straight game — that this team knows how to take a punch and get back up.