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Their effort not hard to categorize

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / February 8, 2010

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Elite teams don’t get outscored, 36-11, in a quarter.

“The Celtics aren’t an elite team,’’ ESPN/ABC NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy said after Boston collapsed in the third quarter yesterday at TD Garden and dropped a 96-89 decision to the Orlando Magic.

Van Gundy was plain about his assessment of the Celtics and he was correct.

The Celtics left elitehood when Kevin Garnett showed signs of age and needed right knee surgery, when Paul Pierce no longer could consistently get off his elbow jumper, and when Ray Allen hesitated before taking the open 3-pointer. The Celtics now reside in Pretty Good-land, talented enough to beat most teams but not talented enough to consistently win against teams who are their physical equal.

The fans aren’t satisfied with pretty good, and the organization has 33 games to change things or else the team will be eliminated from the playoffs again. Boston is 1-7 against Orlando and Atlanta this season and its season-opening win at Cleveland means nothing at this point because it was more than three months ago. The Cavaliers have lost just 10 times since then and are on an 11-game winning streak.

Cleveland and the Lakers have established themselves as elite teams, so the Celtics need to stop putting themselves in that category. It’s time to go back to their training-camp regimen, dig up those ubuntu references, and regain their swagger and humility at the same time.

The Celtics coasted yesterday as if the Magic came to Boston for the express purpose of serving as a sacrificial lamb. With a full lineup that included Marquis Daniels, the Celtics played one of their best halves of the season, and if they had cruised to a victory, the consensus would have been that the team was back.

So maybe their third-quarter coma was a good thing. It revealed that this team has confidence issues. All season the players have believed they were better than they were. “Hey, we’re the Celtics,’’ was a mentality gained after winning the title in 2008, and it was strong enough to make most teams back down before the opening tip.

But the jig is up. The Celtics have to stop fooling themselves because it’s obvious they aren’t fooling anyone else.

Who’s to blame? Is it the coach, who has given the team many days off during the season hoping it would preserve the players’ energy?

Is it Father Time, who has put a whammy on Pierce, Garnett, and Allen, practically forcing president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to reconsider his 2012 plan for rebuilding because the Big Three may be as outdated as a Hummer?

Or is it the players, who have relied so much on the “We’re not healthy’’ and “Wait until we get Marquis back’’ excuses that most of them have it on their Facebook status?

If this is the team the Celtics are going to battle with, then they have to decide to fight and learn to make adjustments, especially after halftime.

After a first half in which the Celtics shot 49 percent, committed just three turnovers, and Rajon Rondo was allowed to roam the court freely, it came as no surprise that the Magic responded by playing more intense defense and whipping the ball around the perimeter for open 3-point shots.

The Celtics acted as if they never had seen this before from Orlando. Haven’t these teams played 10 times in the past seven months? And yet they appeared stunned and dumbfounded. It seems as if this team becomes surprised when its opponent doesn’t back down.

That mentality needs to change.

“We just - we tend to relax and let our guard down,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “And you know - like one of the guys said, ‘We’re better than Orlando.’ And I said, ‘No you’re not. That’s a bunch of [expletive]. They beat you three games, two at your place. They’re better. They knocked you out of the playoffs last year. Orlando’s better than us right now. Atlanta’s better than us right now. LA’s better than us right now. Those are teams that have beaten us.

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t be better than them at some point. But right now, those are better teams than us.’’

So Rivers finally has abandoned his “Don’t worry, be happy’’ mentality and will become more watchful of how the team views itself. The postgame atmosphere was unlike any other after a loss. Rivers tore into his team for its lackadaisical stretch and then the Big Three called a players-only meeting to discuss a new approach.

The Celtics have to bury the 2008 mentality because that team is gone. That season should be placed in Boston sports immortality with the other 16 titles; living off that title is rather pathetic. We want our teams to take the foundation of previous successes and use it to build new triumphs. The Celtics are the dated rock group still relishing past hits. Eventually those hits turn into relics and the group turns obsolete. The Celtics have 33 games to decide if they want to stay on the current path or make some new, fresh memories for fans to cherish.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think we get too comfortable,’’ Rondo said. “It starts with me. It’s been an ongoing issue with us. You take the Atlanta series, three out of four games we had the lead going into the half, the same thing happens. We’re still hungry, but when we get up, it’s not the same focus. We can’t keep making excuses about injuries; we’re just not getting the job done.’’

When asked whether the team is confident it can beat Orlando or Atlanta in a playoff series, Rondo responded, “I am. But I’m just one person on the team out of 15 guys.’’

So how many don’t believe?

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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