Celtics offer a glimmer of hope with their performance, but they have to be more consistent

This season has disintegrated to the point where the Celtics are taking encouraging signs from losses. Yet in this case, they may have a point.

The Celtics’ 89-86 loss to the Knicks Thursday night at TD Garden was more about the home team making small strides and less about the apparently dissolved feud between Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Garnett.

The Celtics had every reason to fold under the Knicks’ pressure. They came to Boston for blood, to end an 11-game losing streak here that extended almost seven years. They wanted to prove they are the best team in the Atlantic Division, and avenge a 102-96 loss to the Celtics Jan. 7 at Madison Square Garden.

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But it required a 3-pointer by J.R. Smith with 1:11 left and a couple of botched possessions by the Celtics to clinch the win for the Knicks, who stand seven games ahead of Boston in the division. That gives the Celtics 40 games to make up the deficit, and if they consistently play with the passion they exhibited Thursday, they will become a factor in the Eastern Conference.

Effort has been the Celtics’ primary problem during the first half of the season. They haven’t played with consistent passion or aggression. They trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter after a Smith 12-footer with 6:46 left, and the crowd began thinning out.

But the Celtics rallied, and were an Avery Bradley 3-point attempt away from taking the lead with 2:13 left. Bradley missed the shot, and the Celtics scored 2 points the rest of the way, committing two costly turnovers.

Unlike in losses this week to Detroit (total lack of effort and fortitude) and Cleveland (pathetic fourth-quarter defense), the Celtics showed signs of life. Their faithful have to become accustomed to the fact they are no longer capable of prolonged success during the regular season, and the goal now is to improve consistency and prepare for an unlikely long playoff run.

The Celtics are eighth in the conference, 8½ games behind the Miami Heat, and face the Hawks Friday night in Atlanta, and the Heat Sunday back in Boston. It’s too much to ask this underachieving team to make a serious run at the Heat, but what the Celtics can do is play stingy defense and scrape their way to some victories.

They would take Anthony and Smith combining for 14-for-44 shooting, including 2 for 12 on 3-pointers. They would take holding Tyson Chandler to two shot attempts and Jason Kidd to two assists. The Knicks entered Thursday with all the momentum and the Celtics held New York to 38.6 percent shooting and 11 points below their season average.

If the Knicks are the second-best team in the East, this Celtics team, even in its confused and befuddled state, isn’t that far behind. The question is whether the Celtics are capable of maintaining this intensity every night, even when the bright lights aren’t on, even on the second game of back-to-backs such as in Atlanta, even against struggling teams, which have found ways to flourish against the Celtics.

So in terms of confidence, the Celtics passed a significant test Thursday. They weren’t routed. Anthony didn’t go for 50. They weren’t embarrassed. They could have won. For the 2008 or ’09 teams, that would be unacceptable, but for these Celtics, it’s a beginning.

“The only way to get out of this is through hard work and grinding,” Garnett said. “We know we’re a working bunch. We’ve always been a working group and that’s what we’re going to continue to be and try to change this thing around. But it’s just like one thing after another, man. We had problems on the defense, we really had to fix that. Got that under control a little bit now. You know on offense, we have to find ways to get some easy buckets. We’ve just got to keep going at this thing. We definitely don’t point fingers around here. We are going to keep working as a group.”

The Celtics had a chance to tie it in the closing seconds, but Paul Pierce couldn’t gather a Rajon Rondo pass while being harassed by Smith, and the ball squirted out of his left hand with 7.1 left and the Celtics trailing by 3.

That play summed up the misery of the season, showing how close the Celtics were to sending it to overtime and how far they were from even getting a shot off (Pierce never had the ball cleanly).

Our problem is we are judging these Celtics by the standards of their predecessors. We expect excellence from the opening tip of the opening game, and they are just not capable of that anymore. Their best basketball will be played as the season concludes — or at least they hope so.

Thursday was better than Tuesday, and a lot better than last Sunday. If the Celtics continue this methodical climb, they will be a factor by March and April. But they can’t get discouraged by the losses. They can’t lose focus or confidence and they can’t forget how to win these games.

On Thursday night, it almost seemed like they did.

“I really like the effort and the way we competed tonight, but we have to do it night in and night out,” Pierce said. “We’ve seen a lot of positive things. If our offense can catch up with our defense we’ll be a whole lot better. We’ve improved throughout the year defensively to get where we want to be, but our offense has to improve.”