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Celtics' Isaiah Thomas: 'We're not the hardest-playing team no more'

When Markieff Morris' shot attempt bounced high off the back rim, the Boston Celtics had five bodies standing in the paint, all with their eyes tracking the possible rebound. Behind them, four Washington Wizards began to retreat.

But from the weak side of the floor, Washington's Otto Porter Jr. made a full-throttle sprint into traffic. Why not, right? The undersized Celtics and their woeful rebounding abilities had rarely discouraged a glass-crasher this season.

With a bit of a bump from behind, Porter was able to push through Isaiah Thomas and haul in the rebound. The sight of Porter not only outleaping Avery Bradley -- while Thomas stumbled and Boston big men Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk stayed rooted to the ground -- but emerging with the ball while surrounded by five green jerseys hammered home Boston's struggles early in the 2016-17 season.

Porter, fouled while going back up the with one of his seven offensive rebounds, produced a career night with 34 points and 14 rebounds over 38 minutes. The Wizards as a team rebounded a staggering 41.3 percent of their misses and generated 33 second-chance points off 19 offensive rebounds en route to a 118-93 triumph over the Celtics at the Verizon Center.

The Celtics returned home Wednesday night ranked dead last in the NBA in defensive rating (112.3 points per 100 possessions), defensive rebound percentage (70.8 percent) and total rebound percentage (45.3 percent).

Since the final horn of Sunday's embarrassing defensive effort in a loss to the Denver Nuggets, Celtics players pledged to improve both their defense and rebounding. On Wednesday night against the Wizards, Boston dug itself a 26-point hole by not only letting Washington shoot 85.7 percent beyond the 3-point arc in the opening frame but also allowing itself to be bullied while scoring only eight points in the first quarter.

This isn't just a rebounding issue for the Celtics -- it's an identity crisis.

While trying to digest another disheartening performance, All-Star point guard Thomas admitted the Celtics need to again find the underdog mentality that defined this team since his arrival at the 2015 trade deadline.

"It's frustrating. It's tough. We're in a bad funk right now," Thomas told reporters in Washington. "We can't hold our heads. One thing I think is, we're not the hardest-playing team no more. I think that's what made us special, that's what made us good, us playing harder than the other team. Being more scrappier, getting all the loose balls. Rebounds don't come to us no more because we're not playing hard.

"I gotta watch the film, I gotta see what I have to do better, see what we can do better. That's just the feeling I have right now, that we're not the hardest-playing team. That's what made us special, that's what made us win 48 games last year, and made teams not really want to play against us. We don't have that swagger no more."

The Celtics should have had at least a sense of urgency on Wednesday night. Instead, it was the one-win Wizards who were hell-bent on emerging from their own early-season funk.

"[Basketball is about] playing hard. It's leaving it all out there on the floor. That's who we were," Thomas said. "That's what made us one of the best defensive teams in the league. That's what made us win 48 games last year. We have to find that swag, we gotta get that back. Because, if we don't, it seems like we're going off talent, which we really don't have that much talent, including myself.

"I think if we get that hard-hat [mentality] back, where we're the hardest-playing team, we're going to be in every game. Just like last year, we didn't get blown out like this. Even though it's early, two really bad games for us, we didn't have these type of games last year."

Thomas' sentiment was echoed by Marcus Smart. The third-year guard, who is likely ticketed for a starting role soon as rookie Jaylen Brown experiences growing pains trying to fill Jae Crowder's void, suggested that the Celtics haven't been playing with any heart in recent games.

It was Marcus Smart who tried to ignite a second-half rally with an 18-point third-quarter effort and then stood nose-to-nose with John Wall after Washington's star guard fouled Smart hard with contact to the head in the fourth quarter of a 20-point game. Wall was assessed a flagrant foul 2 and ejected.

The Celtics need more of that fire and heart.

Two weeks into the season, the 3-4 Celtics and Brooklyn Nets have the exact same win total (the Nets actually have a better scoring differential, though neither team should be bragging about being in the negative). Until Boston rights its ship, you'll hear plenty of jokes about how maybe the Celtics won't be requesting a swap of draft spots with the Nets.

Boston has plenty to shore up, especially on the glass. The easy second-chance opportunities are negating the work Boston is doing early in possessions and demoralizing the team.

"We've got to fight," Smart told reporters in D.C. "We ain't got no heart right now."

And these Celtics don't have an identity. Maybe they bought into their own hype a little too much before the season. Maybe these injuries have simply made things tougher than they expected. Regardless, there's no excuse for the way Boston has played.

Boston's problems aren't going away unless the team is willing to work to restore its identity.