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WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) — Hall of Famers Kevin McHale and John Havlicek had some of their best years coming off the bench for the Boston Celtics. As did Cedric Maxwell, whose number is also hanging from the rafters at the Boston Garden.
So Celtics general manager Danny Ainge would like Isaiah Thomas not to worry about whether he is going to be labeled as a second-stringer.
"Sometimes you've got to play the role to win and do what's best for the team," Ainge said Thursday in a wrapup news conference that looked back on the Celtics' surprising run to the playoffs and ahead to the draft. "I'm confident that Isaiah is a winner."
The Celtics acquired Thomas from Phoenix in February, and he soon established himself as one of the young team's best scoring threats. He averaged 19 points in just 26 minutes, coming off the bench in all 21 games he played for Boston.
"Right now, for our team, I think Isaiah is more suited for a bench role," Ainge said, adding that it will be up to coach Brad Stevens and how Thomas performs. "He provides an amazing spark off the bench, and he was obviously our best offensive player. Brad did a magnificent job of utilizing him at the most-needed times of the game, and at the most-needed times of the game the ball was in his hands."
Speaking at the team's practice facility as he prepared for a busy summer, Ainge said he is preparing for the draft and free agency with the hopes that the team will improve next year. This year's team was expected to be in a race only for the draft lottery — especially after trading Rajon Rondo in December — but the Celtics made the playoffs as the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference.
A four-game sweep by the Cleveland Cavaliers showed them how far they have to go, Ainge said.
"I didn't believe that we were a championship contender at the beginning of the year ... and then when we made the trades early in the season, I think our expectations were a little bit less," Ainge said. "When we acquired Isaiah, I knew he would make us better."
Also Thursday, Ainge:
— Came to the defense of forward Kelly Olynyk for the play that injured Kevin Love. Calling Love's claims that Olynyk did it on purpose "a little bit over the top," Ainge said he thought it was "just a foul — two guys going for a loose ball."
— Expressed surprise over the way things worked out for Rondo in Dallas. He was traded to the Mavericks in December and clashed with Dallas coach (and former Ainge teammate) Rick Carlisle.
"I like both individuals and I'm very surprised that it didn't work out better," Ainge said.
— Said forward Jared Sullinger needs get in better shape to maximize his potential.
"I'm hopeful that he'll see the light," Ainge said. "I think he's hurting the longevity of his career and his play now by not being in as good of shape as he can be in."