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Maybe the Celtics were never as good as we thought

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The longer the East’s preseason favorite stumbles through listless stretches in the regular season, the more this becomes a painful reality.

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The star point guard is over it, the second star hasn’t been able to get it back, and the third star is maybe starting to lose it ever so slightly. The invaluable veteran role players can’t consistently make shots, the young kids take too many of them at inconvenient times, and the genius coach hasn’t been able to fix it.

Other than that, this Boston Celtics season is humming right along.

The C’s were booed off the court several times on Sunday in a loss to the Rockets that may have been the absolute nadir of their season, except for the fact that there are a half-dozen times other contenders for that dubious honor. This one got so bad that a young player named Semi Ojeleye — with barely any role of his own — felt compelled to tell his teammates: “Wake the fuck up,” as the Athletic’s Jay King reported.

Ojeleye is a respected presence in the locker room, but you know things are bad when the 11th man airs everyone out and the reaction is basically, ‘Yup, the man’s got a point.’

Even with all that, there was a brief sliver of optimism among the gloom hanging over the Garden on Sunday. With the game all but lost entering the fourth quarter, the C’s mounted a spirited comeback behind their beleaguered young core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier.

In the midst of yet another dreadful loss, you could still see the competitive spirit that made the Celtics so successful these last few years and may be the thing that saves them come the postseason. Not that they’ve given anyone reason to believe that they’ll be able to channel that energy when it matters, but it does exist, and that’s the most frustrating thing of all.

Where to begin? Where did we leave off …

In late November when the C’s were 10-10, the problem seemed to be cohesion. There were too many players being forced to adjust roles they had either outgrown or not been able to perform. That began to work itself out when Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown went to the bench, where both have had their moments. Brown, in particular, has been one of the team’s better players since December.

As roles became clearer and the schedule eased up, the C’s started winning games again. They have the third-best net differential since Nov. 25 behind Milwaukee and Golden State, an indication that maybe this team really can get it together. After a tough, but valiant, loss to the Warriors, some (OK, me) even suggested that the Celtics were once again the biggest threat in the East.

Unfortunately, within those last few months, they’ve also encountered bizarre losing streaks that seemed to test their patience and resolve. Whether it was Kyrie Irving pointing the finger at the kids or the kids taking umbrage with the accusations, the vibe around the team has been subdued to the point of somber.

Even when they were playing relatively well, Marcus Morris unloaded his frustrations to reporters after a disjointed home loss to the Clippers. In what has become the most telling quote of the season to date, Morris said: “Even though we’re winning, it’s still not fun. I don’t see the joy in the game.”

It was around that time when Kyrie Irving backed off his verbal commitment to sign an extension this summer.

Tensions are always high around the trade deadline, but Kyrie’s declaration of non-intent signaled an important reality of this Boston team: It may not be around much longer. Even on a team with championship aspirations, this season is a means to an end, and that endgame is getting Anthony Davis in green, preferably along with Irving.

While proposals and principles haven’t been broached, it’s clear that everyone on the roster could be in play for an AD mega-trade with New Orleans this summer. That doesn’t mean everyone will be involved, but the underlying assumption is that this roster will be sacrificed on the superstar altar.

Chemistry is a funny thing. Taken one way, this could have served as a rallying cry, much like last season’s team was defined by other’s low expectations and their desire to prove them wrong. Or, it could blow up in their face, which is where things are at the moment.

This latest downturn is even more troubling.

After dropping a one-point game in Milwaukee that had people (me again) thinking they were headed in the right direction, they immediately failed to compete in embarrassing losses to the Bulls and Raptors.

Another loss to the Blazers in which they played hard — progress! — was followed by a listless performance against the Wizards that required a second-half surge to avoid catastrophe. Then came Sunday’s boo-fest, and we’re pretty much back where we started in November.

Teams take their cues from their best players, and it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that this latest bad stretch came after Irving expressed his disinterest in the rest of the regular season. This stat, via Dean Oliver, one of the pillars of the analytics movement, typifies Boston more than any other and points to a strange disconnect between Irving and the rest of his team.

How can it be both?

Perhaps we’ve been looking at this all wrong. Despite the occasional signs of life, maybe they just aren’t that good.

The Celtics depend on outside shooting to an enormous degree. They don’t generate much offense at the rim or hardly any at the free-throw line. Instead of attacking, they settle for the dreaded death valley of the mid-range. It’s easier there, for sure. There’s more room to get shots off, even if they’re the wrong ones. Too often, possessions look broken, with players scrambling to fire up 3’s in tight spaces or going one-on-one for pull-up jumpers.

Playing in chaos also happens to be Kyrie’s strength, and it’s tempting to put a lot of this on the guard. He’s a scorer first and a playmaker second. Yet, Irving has been a more committed passer this season than at any other point in his career, and he’s one of the rare players with the ability to buck convention and operate successfully in the mid-range. When he breaks the offense and goes freestyle, it’s often the only thing keeping them competitive.

It’s also tempting to put all of this on Brad Stevens. His offenses have been consistently mediocre, save for those two glorious seasons when Isaiah Thomas played out his mind and everyone else executed their supporting roles. The question now — and it’s a fair one — is whether Stevens is one of those coaches who is best at getting a lot out of a little, but not so adept at channeling greatness into a cohesive group.

That, of course, assumes that this team has greatness within its grasp, and it’s not at all clear that they do. Hayward hasn’t been able to generate much consistency as a secondary playmaker, let alone as a complementary star. After dealing with nagging injuries earlier in the year, Horford came back looking spry, but the defense has been statistically better when he’s on the bench.

Tatum and Brown haven’t progressed as much as they should and Rozier has stagnated. The Marcuses — Morris and Smart — may be overextended in larger roles. Injuries to Aron Baynes have also hurt, though it’s worth wondering how they came to rely so much on a 20-minute-a-night backup big man.

Taken individually, any of these things could be corrected and improved. Good teams cover up their weaknesses and pick each other up in bad times. Taken together, this represents a complete breakdown of everything they were supposed to stand for this season. It’s hard to accurately assign blame when the root cause appears to be a little bit of everything.

In the absence of overwhelming evidence, feel free to blame the star player for failing his leadership test. Blame the coach for allowing it to disintegrate. Blame injuries, the vagaries of youth, and the front office for failing to anticipate these problems. Everyone is culpable and no one should be spared.

So, we’re left with this.

The Celtics have given us no reason to believe they are capable of playing inspired basketball when it matters. Until they do, we should consider them just another decent, albeit seriously flawed team. They have earned neither the benefit of the doubt, nor anyone’s trust.

They remind me of another frustrating Boston squad that looked dead in the water down the stretch. The exact quote has been lost to the wilds of the internet, but it was after a brutal loss to lowly Washington that Doc Rivers said (paraphrasing here): “If we get it together in the playoffs, will you promise to forget about all this stuff?”

That team limped to a 50-32 record and the No. 4 seed, going 25-24 after a 25-8 start. They went on to reach the seventh game of the NBA Finals, and yes, all was eventually forgiven about the regular season.

That team had a championship to its name and had earned a bit of trust. This team has neither. It may be beyond their abilities, but it’s the only way they can redeem themselves.