DALLAS – Marcus Smart said words couldn’t explain it, but seconds later, he managed to explain it just fine.

“It feels like déjà vu all over again,” Smart said late Saturday night, after Boston fell back to .500 on the season with a 113-104 loss to the Mavericks. “We keep saying and doing the same thing after every game. It’s getting real annoying.”

Frustrations continue to build within a team that is drastically underperforming with relation to expectations. Its last three weeks have been a story of one step forward, one step back.

Or, in reality, four steps forward and eight steps back. That’s Boston’s record over the last 22 days: 4-8.

Every time it feels as if the Celtics have begun to find their way, they seemingly become lost again.

It happened when they followed up a stunning comeback win in Phoenix, which was reminiscent of their comeback grit from a season ago, with two straight losses to end a recent road trip.

It happened when they followed up back-to-back wins on Nov. 14 and Nov. 18, including an overtime victory over Toronto, with three straight losses to the Jazz, the Hornets and the Knicks.

And it happened again Saturday night, when they followed up a blowout win Friday night in Atlanta with a frustrating defeat at the hands of the Mavs.

What is causing this inconsistency? The Celtics don’t seem to have an answer.

“If I knew,” said Smart, “we wouldn’t be having this situation, right?”

Right. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest how Boston can get out of this rut.

A season ago, the Celtics won 55 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals without two of their most talented players. They accomplished such feats by playing with an edge – an edge that has been unmistakably missing this season, which is no secret to the players.

“Last year, when [teams] came in, when they played the Celtics, they knew they were in for a fight,” said Smart. “This year, teams can’t wait to play us. That’s a problem.”

It most certainly is, but it’s controllable.

These exact players have shown that they can play so hard that they strike fear into opponents. That’s what made them so special a season ago.

They have done it. That’s real, true evidence. It’s in them. It’s just a matter of finding it and bringing it out again.

The Celtics need to find that edge, and they need to play with it every night. If they don’t, they’re going to lose.

Brad Stevens made that statement over and over last season, and it’s even more true this time around. Why? Because Boston is now the hunted. It isn’t sneaking up on anybody.

“It’s definitely difficult, because you’re going through some things you’re probably not used to,” said Kyrie Irving, “and I mean that in terms of having that target on your back.

“I think that last year we kinda got away with just subtly winning games and going on a win streak and then managing throughout the season. But this season, having an expectation, having that target, is something we all have to get used to as a team.”

It’s getting to be that time when it’s now or never for the Celtics to get used to playing with that target on their backs. For all intents and purposes, they’re a quarter of the way through the season, and they’re sitting at 10-10 and in the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s nowhere near where they expected to be.

Can they climb their way out of the hole they’ve fallen into? No doubt. Will it be easy? No way.

This troubling case of déjà vu can be shaken. It’s time to experience déjà vu of another kind – the one that reminds everyone of how much effort these players can give, and how great they can be.

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