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Celtics sound out of options after meltdown at Raptors

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An occasionally inconsistent, disjointed group that didn’t get up for games in spots improved mightily toward the all-star break. Leaders spoke up. Now, silver linings feel exhausted.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Celtics lost ground on expectations through their 10-10 start to the year. They lost to teams now leading the lottery. Their offense lagged, defense couldn’t carry victories and they sunk in the standings. Dangercart noted that even if Boston turned it around, that start limited their ability to fully resume expectations: prohibitive East favorites.

Issues perpetuated, namely chemistry concerns and the continuous topic of Kyrie Irvings’ future, but improvements mounted. Al Horford emerged from knee injury as good as ever. Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Irving produced career years. Irving and Smart regularly spoke up on internal issues. Brad Stevens shifted the starting lineup. Winning, over slip-ups like Gordon Hayward and Irving disagreeing about a final set, prevailed.

Enough victories and silver lining provided hope for salvaging expectations. Until this week.

The Celtics dropped three straight games out of the all-star break, capped by a shellacking at the hands of the Toronto Raptors. Deadline addition Marc Gasol contributed to an 18-0 run that knocked the Celtics down, then Toronto kicked further throughout the second half on the way to a 118-95 win. After the game, Irving and Smart, once defiant in these low moments, had little to say.

“We’re just not together. Not together at all,” Smart said.

Kyrie Irving, asked if he agreed with Smart’s assessment, stayed silent. Asked about Brad Stevens’ assessment that the team takes shortcuts defensively, Irving said it’s up to Stevens to fix it.

Leadership deflated against Toronto. In the same breath, the Celtics could brag before the break that they defeated the East’s best in various games. Milwaukee and the Raps reversed that trend this week.

The combined factors of disjointedness, chemistry and inconsistency spilling into Boston’s play, three quarters of the season already behind and silver linings depleting make it nearly impossible to ignore an impending crisis for the C’s at this point.

That could include an early playoff exit, Irving departure, massive roster turnover this summer and inevitably a step back from perennial championship contention this group seemed poised to achieve. Combined with reduced draft stock this spring, it may not derail future success for Boston, but would place them in a position opposite of what most deemed possible when Irving verbally re-upped at that season ticket event.

Where’d it go wrong? Who’s to blame?

Hayward struggled early and remains far from his best self but improved. Terry Rozier regressed in his return to the bench, but doesn’t play enough minutes to warrant singular blame. Irving, Horford and Smart led with both voice and play.

Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Morris swapped sporadic production on a game-by-game basis. Across the roster, singular players thrived one night and appeared disengaged the next. Over this recent three-game stretch the collective team appeared dejected.

Stevens pointed at himself the whole way, but couldn’t completely avert the trends lagging his roster behind the top half of the East. Danny Ainge, slowed by an unusual lack of flexibility, watched while the 76ers, Raptors and Bucks made deadline additions with leads already in hand on Boston. The C’s didn’t even fill Jabari Bird’s vacated spot.

Yet the talent is here. In the words of Bill Simmons via Isiah Thomas, two people beloved in these parts I’m sure, it isn’t always about the basketball.

I leave this entire story in the past tense because the Celtics possess the basketball talent thwart this sporadic regular season come playoff time — leave it behind. They’ll get the chance to flip the switch where the Lakers (struggling with their own expectations) may not. A great playoff run potentially cancels all of this.

But I also use the tense to express this as done, part of who this group is. With 61 games complete, it’s fair to weigh the positives and negatives as intrinsic to a team’s identity. The story on the 2018-19 Celts is already partially written, and they repeatedly relapsed on their bad habits.

The answer to the riddle may be that there is not singular blame for this potentially first failed season of the Stevens era. To prevent that title, a collective group must revoke the worst version of itself that appeared in Toronto, something individual performances haven’t been able to do for the team.