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Bulpett: Celtics’ effort must match hype

The Celtics were not wrong to believe all the preseason hype that surrounded them.

They were just wrong to believe — however subconsciously — they would be placed into the NBA Finals by acclimation, that they wouldn’t have to put in the actual, you know, work.

The Celts tied themselves in a Gordian knot on their 1-4 road trip, getting stuck inside their own heads and suffering bouts of temporary hoop paralysis that manifested itself in 20-point deficits. Now all manner of solutions are being suggested, from major trades to lineup tweaks to chicken soup.

Still, I see no need for panic or liquid-based meals that heal. The cure is simple and lies within.

The only way for the Celtics to be an elite team is to realize they have to play with the passion and urgency of those trying to keep a job in the league. They have to see each movement on the scoreboard as a referendum on their basketball existence.

They have to compete. All the frickin’ time.

Their willingness to do so last season — coupled with their individual improvements and the returns of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward — is why generally bright people in the game took full note of Kawhi Leonard’s move to Toronto and still proclaimed the Celts favorites in the East.

And it’s why there hasn’t been a preponderance of ankle injuries by those leaping from their moving bandwagon. It would be foolish to believe the C’s won’t steer out of this skid. Almost as foolish as they’ve been to take their hands off the wheel and invite this slide.

It’s a theme we’ve discussed here for years, but one that human nature seems to retrieve with regularity. Even the Celtics of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett vintage weren’t immune.

You do something 99 straight times, and you just figure it will happen on its own the 100th. But it doesn’t work that way. There was slippage with that collection of Celts, too, and at one point a couple of years before he finally departed for an allegedly greener coast, the frustration that accompanied it had Doc Rivers all but out the door.

The point then was that, no matter how long and storied their resumes, no matter how quickly they would be ushered into the Hall of Fame, they still had to set hard picks and make hard cuts each time down the floor for a possession to work. But sometimes veterans act as if they can just hand a $20 ($50 adjusted for salary inflation) to a ballboy and have him set the screen.

These Celtics aren’t at that elder legend stage by any means, but a similar thread runs through them. They’ve been told how great they will be this season from the moment their sneakers made their last squeak on the parquet floor in Game 7 against the Cavaliers in May.

It is said of this group there are players sprinkled deep in the rotation who could be All-Stars in other situations, and such might be the case. But to make this team work, there has to be an acceptance and celebration within that all are night-shift laborers who, if they handle their part of the assembly line well, will produce grand victories.

And unlike those who toil in obscure dignity, there will be thousands cheering them in person. And by now, every C’s player should know the fan base here might gasp and whoop at a brilliant individual move, but the loudest sustained ovations come when three or four crisp passes leads to an easy bucket. Yeah, they dig that kind of stuff here.

And the Celts haven’t been giving it to them nearly enough. Irving’s ball-peen hammer struck the roofing nail perfectly after Sunday night’s loss in Portland.

“We needed this,” he said. “We’re not as good as we think we are. That’s really what it comes down to.

“I think I said in the beginning of the season, the excitement is just done. You know, it’s real basketball now, so it’s not just about the potential of the team or where we’ll be at the end of the season. It’s right now and taking care of what presently is in front of us. And we have challenges. We have barriers to get over as a team and individually.”

All that talk about the Celtics’ potential should have given them comfort that they are on the right path, but it should be making them even more committed to doing the little things that create those predictions. And, of course, there are no little things.

It’s important to have confidence, but equally if not more important that you don’t over-indulge in its high-calorie delight. Teams can’t allow themselves to get fat on belief if it’s not supported by effort.

Before they tip off against the Bulls tomorrow night, the Celtics can look to the indoor sky at the number 33. Sure, Larry Bird was confident, but confidence wasn’t enough. He damn well knew his shots were going in because he’d thrown in bushels of them before anyone else got to the gym.

Irving is right. The Celts aren’t as good as they think. They are only as good as they play. And lately, absent the intensity and urgency required by this league, they have to know they are less than what they should be.

They can, and should, fix that.

Twitter: @SteveBHoop

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