By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics have been one of the better teams in the NBA to start this season. But they have a fatal flaw that needs to be fixed quickly if they want to remain in that group.

The Celtics got off to another slow start in Wednesday night’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, a team that was just 4-11 on the road entering the matchup. Boston missed their first four shots before Gordon Hayward canned a three to make it an 8-3 game. They proceeded to miss their next five attempts, most of which were open looks, allowing San Antonio to jump out to a massive 22-3 advantage.

The game, for all intents and purposes, was essentially over at that point. The Celtics had very little room for error from that point on, and even after they scratched their way back to a seven-point deficit in the third quarter, Kemba Walker’s shockingly fast ejection was enough to sink any hopes of a comeback.

This isn’t just a midseason slump for the C’s, since slow starts are not a new issue for the team. While they tout the third-best second-half offense in the NBA, averaging 57.7 points, they rank 25th overall in the first half. Their average of 25.9 points in the first quarter sits 26th in the league. The Celtics have shown a knack for coming back, but that’s not sustainable for a team that has high hopes for April, May and June.

“I think you know you are going to go through this in the regular season, it’s just a matter of if you stop it or not,” head coach Brad Stevens said after Wednesday’s loss. “I thought in the first half, they played with so much purpose and intent and we played just sloppy. There is a level of competitive effort that it takes to be in a game, let alone win a game, and we just didn’t have it.”

“We didn’t play hard enough,” Stevens added.

Celtics president of basketball ops. Danny Ainge agrees with that assessment, but is confident Stevens and his players will figure it out. But he admits that on Wednesday night, the Celtics played like a team that showed up to TD Garden and expected to win just by taking the floor.

“It’s been something that has happened a lot this year,” Ainge said of Boston’s slow starts in his Thursday morning appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Toucher & Rich. “Ultimately, the players have to play harder. It’s that simple. You have to show up to win; you can’t just show up to play. There is a major difference to showing up to win and showing up to play. Last night, we saw that.”

Wednesday night was the fourth straight game that the Celtics have found themselves in an early hole on the scoreboard. Though the C’s were able to earn victories after erasing a 20-point deficit against Atlanta last Friday and a 12-point hole in Chicago the following night, they’ve now dropped two straight to some substandard competition. Losing in Washington to a glorified G League team on Monday should have been a wake-up call, but the Celtics must have hit the snooze button.

There was no effort on either end of the floor to start Wednesday night’s game, and it’s clear that the Celtics cannot get by on talent alone. They need to be the team to throw the first punch every night, and that has not been the case on far too many evenings this season. With Boston’s schedule ramping up ahead of the All-Star break, with 19 games in the next 36 days, they better figure out their first-quarter woes quickly.

Will the Celtics throw the first proverbial punch on Thursday in a pivotal matchup with the 76ers in Philly? They better, or they’ll find themselves in another gigantic hole that they may not be able to dig themselves out of.


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