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gary washburn | on basketball

Instead of being a sleeper in the Eastern Conference, this Celtics team appears to have no idea how to win

The Bulls had fun at the expense of Al Horford and the rest of the Celtics Monday night.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

What is most disconcerting and bewildering about the Celtics’ 2-5 start and Monday’s embarrassing fourth-quarter performance is that new coach Ime Udoka has no idea why it’s happening and what to do about it.

He’s as confused as everybody else in the organization.

These are your 2021-22 Boston Celtics, a team with immense talent and absolutely no idea how to win.

They have lost two games in double overtime, both of which they should have won. They were blasted at home by Toronto. They fell apart down the stretch against the Wizards, and then there was Monday’s debacle, where the Celtics led, 96-77, late in the third quarter only to be outscored by 31 points the rest of the way in a 128-114 loss to the Bulls.

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The Bulls took the Celtics’ heart, outscoring them, 39-11, in the fourth quarter. They forced the Celtics into submission with their defense and then kept running the same dribble-handoff play to Zach LaVine that resulted in easy layups.

LaVine, a prolific athlete, is capable of making layups against multiple defenders. Yet the Celtics kept allowing the Bulls to run the same play, and then DeMar DeRozan came in to hit three more buckets and the Bulls were laughing in the Celtics face.

In one late-game moment, DeRozan squatted as he attempted a dagger 3-pointer in front of the Bulls bench, looking back at his teammates as it swished through. His teammates were giggling in delight.

“I think it was probably toward the end of the third,” Udoka said of the beginning of the collapse. “We stopped playing as hard as we were. We started to relax. We got a little cute, careless. Some nights you deserve to lose when you don’t take the game seriously. We relaxed when we got the lead. We acted like the game was over.

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“Only two wins so far, can’t ever feel like you have it in the bag with a whole quarter left to play.”

Ime Udoka didn't sound happy about the outcome of Monday's game.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

So let’s get this straight: the two-win Celtics thought a 19-point third-quarter lead against a 5-1 team was safe and that they could coast? A two-win team has that much arrogance and bravado?

A team that hasn’t won in a week is feeling unbeatable?

Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who say they want to be top-5 players, combined for 2 points in the fourth quarter. What makes a great player elite is the ability to score despite defenses knowing exactly what he’s going to do. Tatum and Brown are not there yet.

Brown scored 28 points but went scoreless for 8:47 of the fourth. When Tatum wasn’t forcing jumpers against multiple defenders, he was complaining about non-calls and doing little else to help his teammates. Neither spoke with the media after the game and Marcus Smart pointedly said they need to learn how to become better playmakers to make things easier for themselves.

Udoka apparently was hired to be a disciplinarian because the players had tuned Brad Stevens out. But they don’t appear to be listening to Udoka, either, and the season is only seven games old.

Moreover, the Celtics look disorganized at times on offense. It’s uncertain what they worked on in training camp but they seem light years behind other clubs with chemistry and execution. They won their two games on strong defense against a young team (Houston) and a combined 71 points from Tatum and Brown (Charlotte).

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Despite being down 19 points, the Bulls knew if they ramped up the defense, and played harder, they could take away the Celtics’ will. They never relented but the Celtics did. That’s the sign of an apathetic and passionless team.

The Celtics made five of 23 shots in the fourth quarter and two of those were by 35-year-old Al Horford, whom the Celtics are depending on a lot more than expected.

As Celtics' fans head for the exits late in Monday's game, one Chicago fan exults as the Bulls complete their comeback.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Udoka is trying to find the remedy, trying to figure how to harness talent into a team that consistently plays hard, is cohesive, especially in the clutch, and doesn’t shake off losses like they’re summer AAU games. Yes, it’s still early but “What the hell is wrong with the Celtics?” is a question being asked frequently around NBA circles.

Teams with new coaches outside of Boston appear excited to play for their new coach. The Celtics just don’t. Do they want to win for Udoka? Do they respect his authority? Do they believe they have better and different answers than Udoka?

“We gave them some life, they got it going and we didn’t respond,” Horford said. “The reality is even though we’ve had success here in the past and we won games, this is a new team and it’s hard to win in this league. The effort is starting to be there. We need to be able to finish games and not stop playing or not relax.”

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When Udoka has to laud his team for playing hard for 48 minutes, that’s a problem. That’s what they’re supposed to do, Coach.

“It’s a lesson learned, a hard one that should hurt,” Udoka said. “We should be [ticked] off.”

It’s demoralizing that the Celtics have to revert back to just trying to play complete games, with full effort and no major lapses, and then perhaps eventually will worry about winning. This team was supposed to be a sleeper in the Eastern Conference, a team that spent the offseason reshaping itself and trying to eradicate its bad habits.

All we heard was that they needed a new voice, a former player as a coach, someone who understands them better than Brad Stevens, and all of their issues would wither away.

But it’s deeper than that. The Celtics are a mess right now, lacking chemistry when it counts, too predictable on offense, not tough enough on defense. They can start their resurgence by taking their craft and opponent seriously, because they are getting punked on a nightly basis and it’s hard to watch.


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.