Celtics not on top of their game

BOSTON -- The troubling part wasn't that the Boston Celtics fell to the Orlando Magic on Sunday, dropping to a dismal 3-9 against the teams with the top eight records in the NBA this season.

No, the troubling part came when a voice inside the Boston locker room suggested the Celtics were still better than Orlando, despite a 1-3 record against the Magic this season, including two losses at home.

"One of the guys said, 'We're better than Orlando,' and I said, 'No you're not. That's a bunch of crap,'" Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after Sunday's 96-89 loss at TD Garden. "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. L.A.'s [the Lakers] better than us right now. Those are the teams that have beaten us. That doesn't mean that we can't be better than them at some point. But right now, those teams are better than us."

There's something to be said for the power of positive thinking, and there's plenty of that going on in the Celtics' locker room. But then there's being downright delusional.

Sure, in four of Boston's five recent losses to Orlando and Atlanta, the Celtics have led in the second half, and probably should have won at least a couple of those games.

But they didn't win. And Boston left the Garden on Sunday with a 1-7 record against the two powers of the Southeast Division. With Sunday's loss, the Celtics not only were leapfrogged in the Eastern Conference standings by Orlando, but fell into a tie with Atlanta at 32-17.

Most troubling of all, the Celtics don't appear to have any answers as to why they haven't been able to put four complete quarters together against the NBA's elite. Since an opening-night win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston boasts merely a Christmas victory over Orlando and a triumph over the Jazz as victories over the top four teams in each conference.

Even with a full roster (save for end-of-the-bench guard J.R. Giddens, who is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery), Boston still fell victim to inconsistent play Sunday, as Orlando outscored the hosts 36-11 during a train wreck of a third quarter. The Celtics looked completely helpless as Orlando turned an 11-point halftime deficit -- the same margin it overcame while rallying in the fourth quarter little more than a week ago in Orlando -- to take a 14-point advantage into the final period.

"We're a defensive team first, and we shouldn't allow teams to score 36 points," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce. "Especially at home."

Added Kevin Garnett: "I think we're better than 11 points. We definitely have to put forth a better effort in executing, and we will. You hate to see that third quarter come like that. I'm sure we're going to watch film and learn from it and then apply it, but we're better than 11 points."

Rivers, who could do little more than shake his head while watching the Magic run roughshod over his team in the third quarter, admitted it wasn't just on his players to turn this around.

But he stressed that it's not an if proposition. According to Rivers, the Celtics will straighten things out.

"It's not just the players," Rivers said. "I've got to get this right with the team as well. You know you've got to point your fingers everywhere. We're 30-what, I don't even know what our record is -- 32-17. That sounds like a great record. But it's not good enough for us. And that's the way I look at it. So I've got to get the message through to this team. It's got to be more clear. I have to do more things and, obviously, I've got to get the message through."

He started Sunday by scoffing at the notion that the Celtics were better than Orlando. The Celtics can look for the positives, but until they show it, no one should believe it.

"I'm not concerned. We feel in every game we've played [against elite competition], we put a good brand of basketball out there," Ray Allen said. "What we're not doing now is doing it for 48 minutes.

"Right now we can't say that we're better than Orlando. We can't say we're better than Atlanta. We can't say we're better than the Lakers. They beat us. It's all about what's in the pudding, and right now we don't have the proof."

Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.