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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Which Celtics team will show in Toronto?

Marcus Morris (right) and the Celtics have lost eight games to teams out of the playoff race, most recently Saturday to Robin Lopez and the Bulls.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images/Getty Images

TORONTO — After Saturday’s listless and stunning performance against the Chicago Bulls, who improved to 6-17 in the New Year with the victory, the Celtics will step into Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday in another situation in which they could either get exposed as a pretender in the Eastern Conference or respond with fortitude.

The Celtics were in a similar scenario a few weeks ago when they faced the Philadelphia 76ers without Kyrie Irving and coming off that embarrassing 28-point blown lead and loss to the Clippers. The Celtics essentially controlled most of the game against the 76ers and eked out a much-needed victory, then ended the unofficial first half with a home win against the Pistons.


What’s bizarre and rather bewildering about this team is that they never know when they’re headed for despair. They fought the Milwaukee Bucks to the final seconds and should have won if officials had called at least one of the two fouls against Irving on the game’s final play.

Amazingly, the Celtics managed to take their next opponent lightly and got smacked in Chicago, allowing a disturbing 77 combined points to Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. And now there are back-to-back games with the Raptors, who are going to be angry after losing Sunday at home to the Magic (although they were without Kawhi Leonard), and the Trail Blazers, who blew out the host 76ers on Saturday.

So the Celtics’ mettle will be tested again. Their inconsistency this season has been maddening. And it’s pretty apparent Celtics coach Brad Stevens has no idea, on some nights, which team will take the floor.

The Chicago loss was inexcusable for so many reasons, primarily because the Celtics preached this whole “it’s time to lock in on the playoffs” when they returned from the All-Star break.

Irving said after the Chicago loss that he still doesn’t see the Celtics losing to anyone in a seven-game series. That’s an interesting take. The way the Celtics are going now, they won’t have home-court advantage in any playoff series.


The goal for the next six weeks has to be catching the Indiana Pacers, who are doing what mature teams do, winning despite the loss of their best player, Victor Oladipo. After losing four straight following Oladipo’s injury, the Pacers went into Monday having won eight of nine — with the lone loss being to the Bucks.

It’s a shame that the Celtics are pointing to the Aron Baynes injury as perhaps the reason they are so inconsistent, while the Pacers keep trucking without an All-Star player. The Celtics had that philosophy last season when Irving and Gordon Hayward were out for the playoffs, but something is eerily different about this team.

They have lacked toughness, only fighting when there are absolutely forced to. They should have made things easier on themselves in Chicago by quickly putting away a Bulls team that had played in Orlando the night before.

Eight of the Celtics’ 23 losses have come to teams outside of the playoffs, if the season ended Monday. They lost to Phoenix, twice to Orlando, that disheartening defeat to the Lakers, and then losses to the Heat, Bulls, Mavericks, and Knicks.

Teams are going to occasionally slip against lesser competition but the Celtics are going to cost themselves a home playoff series losing to bad teams. The Celtics have more than held their own against the league’s elite teams. They show up to play against quality opponents, which means they will be ready for the challenge Tuesday in Toronto.


But losses like Saturday’s in Chicago are demoralizing because Stevens and the players have no concrete or legitimate excuses why they happen because they have none. The Celtics are mostly healthy. They held the Bucks to 98 points, and they at least appear to understand the importance of every game down the stretch.

They would prefer not to have to play Philadelphia or Indiana in the first round. A third seed would ensure a potential easier matchup with Brooklyn or Detroit.

But with 22 games left, the Celtics have to pass the 76ers and Pacers to nab the third seed.

Luckily, they are done with the Raptors (after Tuesday) and the Bucks. But it’s more about the Celtics’ focus and their desire to make something of this season than the schedule. The Bulls were supposed to be an easy win. And it’s an unsettling feeling for Stevens when he has little idea what his team will produce on a given night.

So the response will either have to be more faith (that hasn’t worked all that well so far) or some lineup changes, taking playing time away from players who don’t defend or who play hero ball or fail to execute down the stretch.

At practice Monday in Toronto, Stevens said he’s always looking at potential changes, but we’ll have to wait until gametime Thursday to find out. But he does realize this team is missing something and there’s a high level of uncertainty whether they can capture it before it’s too late.


“I told the guys when you’re not getting back in transition, that’s just an issue you can’t fix with a win,” Stevens said. “The one thing we’ve really honed in on is how we can execute better to eliminate runs.

“Sometimes that’s the case when things don’t go well on offense, human nature is to not be as good defensively. Great teams don’t do that.”

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