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Celtics caught in a cycle of saying and not doing

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The calls from Marcus Smart and Kyrie Irving, repeated ad nauseam through this season, went unanswered again this week through a three-game losing streak. After a closed-door meeting, will discussion finally lead to production?

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever was said in the team meeting seems to have worked for at least one game. But will the Celtics keep up this level of effort or revert back to the habits that led to the team meeting in the first place?

The hustle, effort and intensity the Celtics and their roster of nicknames-laden characters once played with didn’t need a label. Matt Moore labeled them the “try hard” team. Within, players rarely spoke on it and the media sparingly commented on it because, like reporters and the air in the locker room, it always hung around the team.

That changed, for reasons unexpected and difficult to explain. Lineups, cohesion, Gordon Hayward’s return and injuries challenged the Celtics. But for the first significant time in Stevens’ tenure, the team needed to slam the door on the media for a closed-door meeting following their third straight loss at the hands of the Bucks. Boston fell behind by over 20 in the first half, received boos from the fans and failed to pull within single digits.

No details leaked out of the meeting — Kyrie Irving said it’s none of our business — but we can probably extrapolate from what Irving said on just Wednesday. Marcus Smart tried several times to energize and challenge the team, including getting into his teammates in the huddle following several strolls to the rim for layups by Eric Bledsoe that elicited the boos in the second quarter on Friday. Boston woke up from that point on, but failed to win against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 17-point third quarter.

The issue isn’t the three straight losses, the seeding drop the Celtics will likely suffer, or even Hayward’s ongoing slump that continued with a 3-for-13 performance. All three of those problems can work themselves out. It’s that the cycle of Irving and Smart calling for more urgency and hustle, and failing to inspire that effort, could be part of this group’s makeup.

“We just have to have consistency,” Irving said after losing to the Suns by eight. “A cohesion. Where the ball’s moving and guys actually want to see other players be in positions to score the basketball. That means delivering on time.”

“Actually trying.”

To hear the Celtics themselves acknowledge that trying is among their array of problems is a monumental divergence from the past. Not only from the Isaiah Thomas teams. Last year’s roster mounted some of Stevens’ largest comebacks in both the regular season over the Rockets and the postseason against the 76ers.

They played some of the best defense in the NBA, with and without Irving. They grabbed the two seed without Hayward. They nearly made the NBA Finals. Most importantly, they skirted by expectations that turnover would cause cohesion issues. Those arrived one year late.

One month ago the positions of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris could be blamed for Boston’s disjointed effort. Rozier improved and the noise around his role on the team quieted. Morris became a starter. Brown scored double figures off the bench consistently, and played his best game of the season in the loss to Milwaukee.

The Celtics aren’t at peak chemistry, but it’s too late to blame that for their intensity issues. There’s no lack of leadership on this squad either. Irving is exemplarily in his voice and play — 47.8/40.1/84% shooting, career-high 0.9 defensive box plus-minus. Smart’s insertion into the starting lineup sparked a win streak and his remarks in the huddle weren’t his first.

Following Boston’s 1-4 road trip in November, Smart lashed into the group in the locker room in a manner similar to Irving’s latest appeal. He challenged complacency and improvement arrived early in December. Old habits then emerged over this recent lull.

“We’re no longer the hunter,” he said. “We’re the hunted now. Everybody is coming after us, everybody sees and reads what’s been said and what we’ve done. And, rightfully so as competitors, they take it as a disrespect to them, they want to go out and prove what they can do, so we’re going to get everybody’s best game. And if we’re not expecting that then, we’re going to continue to keep going into these deficits and getting our ass kicked.”

At halftime, the C’s trailed 65-48 to Milwaukee. They lost all three of the final quarters against the Suns. At Detroit, they did the same.

Injuries factored into these recent losses as the team’s interior got decimated by Al Horford’s knee, Morris’ discomfort in the same area and Aron Baynes breaking his hand on a freak pass off the hands that anybody who has played basketball has felt.

Irving denied that as an excuse for the recent stretch. The team meeting — following on-court trends evident with issues persistent all season — screams something larger than undermanned deficiencies. Stevens said it too, Boston typically shakes off missing bodies to exceed expectations, as they did against the Bulls with a franchise record in points led by Daniel Theis deep off the bench. As they did all of last year.

Back then, it would’ve been easy to attribute the Celtics’ disjointed performance to a new team. Hayward’s return inserts that into the equation, but otherwise these players have played with each other for dozens of games. Not once did focus or intensity call for a team meeting last year.

The dynamic is different. No Hayward injury to inspire a run in spite of the loss. Greater expectations weighed on them early, and maybe induced a mindset that the east would come to them. Brown did say before the season that Boston would make the Finals, “no question about it,” and the Raptors and Bucks quickly emerged to say something about that.

They’ve tried to tell themselves several times that it’s going to take more, but in December the Celtics don’t appear to fully realize it. Jayson Tatum’s comments after the Bucks loss strike contrast to Smart’s quote a month ago.

“The norm of just coming in and, ‘Hey, we’re going to figure it out,” he said in November. “The definition of insanity, everybody knows, is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. So it’s insane.”