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Game against Spurs will measure Celtics’ progress

Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins (center) didn’t play for the final 16 minutes of the game Thursday against the Celtics in Mexico City.Christian Palma/Associated press

SAN ANTONIO — The goal for the Celtics is to separate themselves from mediocrity, as it appears most of the Eastern Conference teams are trying to gain consistency but are failing miserably.

Washington wins at Cleveland on Tuesday, loses at home to the Lakers on Wednesday. Indiana wins at the Clippers on Tuesday, allowed 126 points the next night at Portland. As for the Celtics, they beat the Wizards by 33 points on Nov. 27 only to lose at Orlando by 19 two nights later.

Since then, the Celtics have notched impressive victories over Miami and Sacramento, both by double-digit margins. Thursday's win over the Kings was even more impressive because they attacked Sacramento's weaknesses initially. The Celtics were well prepared, they scouted the Kings and their putrid perimeter defense.

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If the Celtics were targeting DeMarcus Cousins in any trade deal, Thursday's game should have convinced them to back off and set higher aspirations. Cousins is considered one of the best centers in the game, but his mercurial behavior is stifling his career.

From the opening tip, he appeared irritated and when his teammates looked listless and uninterested from the start, Cousins did little to change that tone. After picking up his fifth foul, he walked back to the bench mouthing expletives and didn't play for the final 16 minutes of the game.

Meanwhile, Rajon Rondo was tossed for arguing calls with official Bill Kennedy, essentially asking out of a game the Kings trailed by 21 points.

Sometimes star power doesn't necessarily bring success. The Kings are a prime example. They have three players that some would take over any Celtic — Cousins, Rondo, and Rudy Gay. Perhaps Isaiah Thomas or Marcus Smart would compete in that draft.

Despite all that talent, the Kings lack chemistry and cohesion. They were defeated early by the Celtics' teamwork, ball movement, and rhythm. In one third-quarter sequence, Jared Sullinger stripped Rondo, and Avery Bradley scooped the ball and raced to the basket. Meanwhile, Cousins walked two steps toward the basket, allowing Bradley to score uncontested.

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It was obvious the Kings didn't want to be in Mexico City and the moment they realized the Celtics were a worthy opponent, they wilted. And the Celtics, despite some of the players' personal frustrations with playing time, have not allowed their issues to seep into the team concept.

And regardless of the fact the Kings had won six of their past 11 games and were improved after a 1-7 start, privately the Celtics sensed a vulnerable opponent.

"I just want guys, no matter where you play, no matter what country, or how much media attention you get, how much jet lag you have, to not have excuses and play," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "We've got to grow in a lot of areas and hopefully we'll play again Saturday [against San Antonio] because that will be awfully difficult."

The Celtics are trying to adopt the business-like style of the Spurs, who always appear to be the tougher and more durable team regardless of the atmosphere. One thing never heard from Spurs players is complaints about playing time, or numbers, or lack of interest, or blaming officials for results.

Saturday will be the ultimate challenge for the Celtics. San Antonio is 10-0 at AT&T Center and has outscored its home opponents by an average of 99-83. In all, the Spurs are holding opponents to 85 points per game and held Milwaukee to a season-low 70 on Tuesday.

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San Antonio appears to be the primary competition to the Warriors in the Western Conference, and the Celtics are just another obstacle. In their workmanlike fashion, the Spurs will expose your weaknesses, play team ball, make the extra pass, and coast to a convincing victory with little fanfare.

That's the mentality the Celtics are trying to adopt. Stevens neither celebrates victories nor laments losses to an extreme. The most impressive aspect of Thursday's win over Sacramento was that it was workmanlike. The NBA threw a party for both teams Wednesday night, the media throng was deep with constant questions about the Celtics' worldwide popularity. Thomas was even asked about his "father," Pistons great Isiah Thomas.

There seemed to be a reason why the club spent the extra day off in Miami and didn't arrive in Mexico until Wednesday. They didn't want distractions during the regular season. Stevens didn't want the players treated this as if it were Milan or Madrid. The Celtics needed another road victory. That was the lone mission.

So now that the Celtics have taken a step forward in professionalism, they can now take lessons from the best on Saturday. Star powers mean little when those stars don't behave and play like stars. The Celtics are learning that team success makes for a more amicable and positive atmosphere.

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And that has more meaning than star power.


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