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On Basketball

Celtics at a loss to understand season of struggles

There is growing uncertainty as to whether Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and these Celtics are capable of greatness.

Steve Yeater/AP

There is growing uncertainty as to whether Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and these Celtics are capable of greatness.

The Celtics’ offseason overhaul has resulted in more problems than solutions as they enter 2013 a sub-.500 team, a defensive laughingstock, and a shell of their former selves.

Their plight isn’t as hopeless as Willie Mays trying to chase fly balls at the end of his career, Frank Sinatra singing from a teleprompter, or Muhammad Ali unable to avoid Larry Holmes’s jab, but the Celtics may be headed in that direction.

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Perhaps losses to the Clippers, who have won 17 straight games, and the Warriors, who are off to their best start in 30 years, were understandable. But when the Kings are taking it easy on the Celtics by clearing their bench in the final minutes, Boston’s ability to compete for a title comes into serious question.

President of basketball operations Danny Ainge tinkered with the roster in the offseason, and none of his moves have worked out.

It starts with Courtney Lee, who was supposed to replace Ray Allen as an energetic defender who could consistently hit the open 3-pointer and be ready for a starting role. He has proved to be energetic on defense but not always effective. He has not proven capable of hitting open shots, and has looked unprepared to be a starting shooting guard.

Lee’s inability to fill that role forced coach Doc Rivers to use Jason Terry in the starting lineup. And while Terry is capable of scoring, he also has submitted some poor shooting performances. He has had games of 1 for 15, 6 for 19, 3 for 10, 1 for 12, and 5 for 17, and that’s just in December.

It’s reached a point where Avery Bradley’s return is being considered a potential season-saver, and that’s far too much pressure to put on a 22-year-old. The defense will improve when Bradley returns, but his teammates have to be better.

One thing that is apparent after the last three games: The Celtics don’t yet trust each other. That’s not to say that Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo don’t trust each other; they do. They don’t trust some of the newcomers, and Garnett made that clear after Sunday’s 118-96 loss in Sacramento.

The Celtics are not on the same page. Some players continue to laugh and joke after losses, while others are furious. Some players expect the improvement will come and don’t appear worried about losses piling up, while others are very concerned.

Pierce said he believes the Celtics will come to life and make another deep playoff run. And it’s understandable that he feels that way. Last year’s team was 15-17 before winning 24 of its final 34 games and advancing to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Garnett is not convinced, which speaks to his concern, and uncertainty in new teammates.

“Paul said he was certain [about a run], I never said that,” Garnett said. “I never said I was certain. That’s what I’m telling you.”

When asked if the Celtics are competing as intensely as in the past, Garnett said, “I’m not going to get into all that. The only person I can control is myself, and everybody has got to look at themselves in the mirror. I’ve got to do better. I’ve got to find some way to make myself [better] and improve. That’s how I’ve got to look at it.”

If Garnett won’t say his teammates are giving 100 percent effort, that likely means he isn’t sure. And he said after Saturday’s loss to the Warriors that the next few weeks will show who is willing to sacrifice for the team’s success. He repeated that Sunday.

“These are dog days,” he said. “This is when you really see who’s with you right now. Ain’t nobody cheering, ain’t no lights on us right now. I love this right here because this is where all the plastic people melt right here. Like I said, look at themselves in the mirror, including myself, and try to figure out what I can do better to help this team.”

There has been little trust established between the old guard and new guard. And the old guard isn’t good enough anymore to carry the younger guys to prosperity. Players such as Lee, Brandon Bass, and Jeff Green have to respond to this adversity because they were depended on to do more than ride the wave of being a Celtic.

There is growing uncertainty as to whether these Celtics are capable of greatness. Rivers is dumbfounded by his team’s inconsistency, to the point where he is lauding starting center Jason Collins, who is averaging more fouls per game (3.4) than points and rebounds combined (3.3).

It seems that after each loss, many players have an “Oh, well, on to the next one” mentality. That indifference could divide the locker room and force Ainge to make a major move.

Something has to change, and it’s highly unlikely the current Celtics are capable of a resurgence.

“To win, you’ve got to play well,” Rivers said. “Winning is hard. And I don’t know if all our guys get that yet. You have to play hard to win an NBA game, one game. It’s difficult, and we’re not doing it.”

Rivers can’t teach his players to play hard, that has to come from within.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe
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