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Dan Shaughnessy

Celtics won’t hit bottom of the league

The Celtics played good and hard against the Pistons.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

The Celtics played good and hard against the Pistons.

The Celtics beat the once-great Pistons, 118-111, at the Garden Sunday night in front of a hearty sellout crowd.

Yowza. In Tankville parlance, we’d call this a 4-point game — in reverse. The Celtics move further away from the basement of the NBA and the Pistons inch closer to Boston among the bottom feeders.

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And here’s a little fun fact to go along with the perverse thinking in the spring of 2014. Sitting on the Detroit bench Sunday night, inactive because of left knee surgery, No. 1 in your program, Mr. Chauncey Billups.

That name ring a bell? Billups represents all that can go wrong with tanking games.

Remember the Great Tank of 1996-97? M.L. Carr drove the Celtics right into the ground. They finished 15-67 (.183), easily the worst season in franchise history. And there was nothing subtle about it.

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“M.L. meant business,’’ recalled Cedric Maxwell (No. 31 in the rafters). “He was the master. ‘You make a couple of baskets, young man? You are out of here. We are going down in flames.’ ’’

The Celtics went into the lottery with the best shot at getting the No. 1 pick. The target was Wake Forest center Tim Duncan, the best collegian in the land, a true franchise player. But instead of the No. 1 pick, the Celtics came away with the No. 3 pick. Instead of Duncan, they came away with Chauncey Billups. And that was the beginning and the end of Rick Pitino in Boston.

Fast forward 17 years and here we are again. The Celtics are 22-41. They have 19 games left.

It’s supposed to be Tankapalooza. It’s supposed to be Refuse To Win (wonder if Coach Cal could patent that one?). They still have a chance to go 22-60 if they lose the rest. But on nights like Sunday, it looks like they didn’t get the memo. Rajon Rondo was a parquet wizard, handing out 18 assists with zero turnovers. Rookie Kelly Olynyk came off the bench for 18. The infuriating Jeff Green scored 27. The Celtics had 38 assists to go with only five turnovers.

And some of us don’t like it.

What must this be like if you are 37-year-old rookie coach Brad Stevens? You have an impressionable young team and you want them to play hard and learn good habits. But you have a fan base and a media contingent pushing losing. It’s a mentality that flies in the face of everything that we know about sports.

“I hear it, I’m aware of it, of course,’’ Stevens said Sunday. “But I can tune it out. If there’s one thing this job makes you do, it makes you aware that you don’t have time to do anything except do your job.

“This has been a learning year for me. Just adjusting to the schedule. One thing losing does, it makes you more introspective. Hopefully, it helps you in the long run.

“Losing is not fun, but I really haven’t heard anybody in our room talking that way [tanking]. We need to build in a lot of different ways and we’re making progress. The best part of all this is that our locker room hasn’t been affected.”

He said he’s been following the philosophy of his favorite book, “Mindset” by Dr. Carol Dweck. The book touts “the new psychology of success’’ and “how we can learn to fulfill our potential.’’

Far as I can tell, there’s nothing in there about tanking. And the Celtics played good and hard against the Pistons. You can forget about the bottom rung of the conference. The Bucks and Sixers are plummeting like anvils in the ocean. The Celtics are probably going to have to settle for the fifth-worst record. Or sixth. Or seventh.

We all know that this isn’t the good old days when finishing with the worst record in the conference gave you a coin flip’s chance at the No. 1 pick in the country. We know that having the best chance at Tim Duncan is still far less than a 50-50 chance. By design, the weighted lottery has stripped some of the incentive for losing.

By any measure, these are strange days in Celtic land. Six years of contention — delivered when Danny Ainge got Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in the spring/summer of 2007 — came to a crashing halt when Ainge finally dissolved the core last summer and now the Celtics are mired in the vast wasteland of irrelevance. Nobody knows what Danny has up his sleeve and all we can do is wait to see the yield from this year’s super-strong draft. If the season ended today, the Celtics would have two of the first 17 picks in the draft. It doesn’t guarantee Duke freshman Jabari Parker (30 points, 11 rebounds against the Tar Heels Saturday), but it means the Celtics should come away with someone better than Acie Earl.

Stevens doesn’t want his younger talents to get in the habit of losing or to accept it too easily. They lost to the Nuggets by 31 Jan. 7, but most Green Teamers believe that the low point came last Wednesday night when they were spanked at home, 108-88, by Jordan Crawford and the Golden State Warriors. Now they’ve won two straight and there’s some preposterous mention of playoffs. A lot of us are restless.

The Celtics’ season officially ends April 16. Then comes the real season. The lottery goes down May 20 in New York. That’s when the Celtics will find out where they are picking. The draft is June 26. Between May 20 and June 26, Ainge could trade anybody. Green, Rondo, anybody.

Meanwhile, the season bleeds out and some of us worry about these nagging winning streaks.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dan_shaughnessy.
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