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Sluggish Celtics in desperate need of a fresh start

The Wizards and Paul Pierce, being fouled by Marcus Smart on Saturday, took it to the Celtics all night.MICAHEL REYNOLDS/EPA

WASHINGTON — For the past week, the warning signs kept springing up each time the Celtics took the opening tip.

When the Celtics played at Miami on Dec. 21, the Heat punched them in the gut with a 9-2 run and never let the Celtics catch their wind.

In Orlando on Tuesday, the Magic stifled the Celtics’ offense and led, 26-9, after one quarter.

Then came the first 12 minutes of Saturday night’s 101-88 loss to the Wizards in Washington.

The Wizards treated the Celtics like extras while they spent the first quarter putting together enough highlights to stuff a short film, throwing the Celtics into a 30-12 hole.

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After the loss, the Celtics realized that from the time they ripped off their warm-ups, the Wizards couldn’t wait to tear into them.

“Obviously, teams are coming out punching us in the mouth,” forward Jared Sullinger said.

The Celtics, who have struggled with slow starts this season, are 16th in the league in first-quarter scoring.

But since trading Rajon Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 18, their woes have been more pronounced.

In the past three games, the Celtics have averaged just 16.7 points in the first quarter while allowing an average of 28.

Since winning their first game without Rondo on Dec. 19, the Celtics have lost four straight.

Either their preparation or mentality at the start of games seems to need work.

“In terms of preparation, obviously I think you could say anything,” guard Evan Turner said. “Sometimes it could be just the way the ball bounces, but once we turned the ball over a little bit too much and sometimes when things go bad, you scream and point at anything.

“But at the same time, we just can’t keep having bad starts. It’s happened a decent amount and maybe we just have to do a better job of asserting ourselves from the jump. We’ve done it a couple times and we just have to make that consistent and keep making that a part of our identity.”

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In the first quarter Saturday, the Celtics committed eight turnovers and the only starters to score were Jeff Green and Kelly Olynyk.

At the same time, the Wizards muzzled rookie point guard Marcus Smart after letting him score 23 points off the bench in an overtime victory Dec. 8.

With Rondo gone, Smart started and had more turnovers (four) than points (3).

Smart didn’t think the Wizards had him targeted more than anyone else.

“I think they focused on everybody a little bit more because of what happened last time,” Smart said. “We just didn’t match the intensity and they were more aggressive.”

But Celtics coach Brad Stevens said he should have made it clear to Smart that the Wizards would look at him differently.

“I’ve got to get him ready,” Stevens said. “I’ve got to do a better job of helping him understand that when he comes into this environment after playing a great game last time against arguably one of the best guards in the East, it’s going to be a lot tougher. I think that that’s something that I just have to do a better job of.”

If there’s a common thread, though, it’s that opponents are salivating at the sight of the Celtics and that’s something they have to change, Turner said.

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“I just think we need to keep a consistent mentality,” he said. “Right now, teams like Washington and Toronto, they have a crazy mentality about themselves and they’re coming out aggressive and there’s a reason why they’re being successful. I think we have to keep, each day, building that mentality and not picking and choosing. As you can tell, sometimes we’ll play great and sometimes we’ll have five minutes of bad basketball. It’s just growing a mentality and making it a routine thing.

“It’s all aggressiveness and communication. When you communicate, that builds an energy and obviously it builds an aggressiveness. If we’re going to get beat, let’s get beat out of toughness and everything like that.”

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The Celtics assigned rookie James Young to the Maine Red Claws. Young, a 6-foot-6-inch guard, has played five games for the Red Claws this season, averaging 22.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.8 steals in 32.0 minutes per game. He is shooting .458 (22-48) from beyond the arc. In five games with the Celtics, the 17th overall pick from Kentucky averaged 2.2 points.


Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.