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For suddenly backsliding Celtics, real test begins Friday

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Booker, Ayton lead Suns past Celtics for 4th straight win (1:01)

Devin Booker scores 25 points and Deandre Ayton drops a double-double of 23 points and 18 boards as the Suns top the Celtics for their 4th straight win. (1:01)

BOSTON -- As recently as last week, all seemed right with the Boston Celtics.

It was Friday night that, here at TD Garden, the Celtics had defeated the Atlanta Hawks to pick up an eighth straight win, seemingly snapping them out of the malaise that lingered throughout the first quarter of this season.

But then Saturday's 113-104 loss in Detroit to the Pistons happened. And that was just a precursor to Wednesday's debacle, when the Celtics became the fourth straight victim to the somehow surging Phoenix Suns, losing 111-103 in a game that was a callback to everything that ailed Boston during its ugly October and November.

So instead of taking a 10-game win streak into a difficult closing stretch to 2018 -- the next seven games Boston play will be against teams with records either at or above .500 -- the Celtics will take the court Friday night against the Milwaukee Bucks shrouded in some doubt about where they actually stand.

"It's like for some games that we've played, when we try, we're in the game all the time," Kyrie Irving said. "And when we don't, we're clearly not. We [can't] look to the refs or anything like that. For us as a growing team and learning from one another, we have to continue to build that cohesion."

Boston (18-12) certainly didn't have much cohesion against the Suns. The Celtics threw the ball around TD Garden with reckless abandon, committing 16 turnovers in a display coach Brad Stevens accurately labeled as "really sloppy" afterward. Meanwhile, Phoenix -- which has now won four games in a row -- looked a step faster all night.

Needless to say, with the Bucks, Sixers and the resurgent Rockets on tap within the next week, better efforts will be required.

"I thought they were the faster, more physical team," Stevens said.

"They played a lot better than we did tonight."

While the Celtics easily played their best basketball of the season during that eight-game winning streak, their struggles against the Pistons and Suns call into question just how real that success actually was.

There's little doubt Boston was playing significantly better than it was during its early struggles. That said, all eight victories came against teams that have losing records, and six of them came against teams ranked 25th or worse in the NBA in defensive rating. In fact, Boston's last victory over a team with a record over .500 was over a month ago, when the Celtics beat the visiting Raptors in an overtime thriller on Nov. 16.

The upcoming schedule will provide a very different kind of test. And, to make matters worse, the Celtics might be forced to navigate it while also dealing with significant injury issues.

Starting center Al Horford has missed the past five games because of patellar tendinitis in his left knee, and though Stevens said pregame Horford had done some on-court work, it didn't sound as if his return was imminent. Meanwhile, his replacement in the starting five, Aron Baynes, is now out indefinitely after suffering a fractured fourth metacarpal in his left hand two minutes into Wednesday's loss.

Without either of them -- not to mention forward Marcus Morris, who sat out Wednesday because of knee soreness of his own and has been Boston's second-best player this season behind Irving -- the Celtics will have their hands full on the glass. Deandre Ayton, the top pick in June's draft, proved that to be the case by racking up 23 points and 18 rebounds Wednesday night -- including eight offensive boards.

As a team, Boston had only nine.

"It breaks people's spirit, getting offensive rebounds and getting new possessions and converting off that," Irving said.

At the same time, there are some signs for optimism. Assuming Morris doesn't end up missing extended time like Horford, Boston has found a nice rhythm with Irving, Morris, Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum on the floor to begin games. Gordon Hayward also continues to make progress in his comeback from last year's gruesome ankle and leg injuries that ended his season six minutes into the opener.

Although Hayward's overall line Wednesday night didn't stand out -- he had 10 points on 3-for-8 shooting to go with 4 rebounds, 5 assists, a steal and 2 blocks in 29 minutes -- he did have moments, like a pull-up 3-pointer late in the first quarter and a chase-down block on Kelly Oubre Jr., that portend better days ahead. And Irving continues to play well, as he had 29 points, 10 assists and 4 steals against the Suns.

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Kyrie's nasty dime sets up Tatum for layup

Kyrie Irving bounces a pass backwards, between-his-legs to Jayson Tatum, who eases in the layup.

Even after their topsy-turvy start to the season, the Celtics find themselves in a perfectly fine position after their first 30 games. Despite being in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, they are only three games behind the second-place Bucks heading into Friday's showdown at home, and are 4½ games back of the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

That is a position the Celtics earned for themselves over the past few weeks by fattening up on the soft part of their schedule. Beginning Friday, things will get far more difficult.

"I was just thinking about it while I was at my locker," Irving said. "This is the NBA season. You just want to have great pockets of games, you have good consistent run, and then now you have a lapse.

"Now it's [time to] build it back up, continue to work every single day to be a very great team. It's a work in progress every day."

Progress has come in fits and starts for these Celtics this season. Last week, it looked as if things were great. After the past two games? Not so much.

How the Celtics handle their next few games will determine which of those viewpoints was the right one.