It's been a rough end to the season for the Boston Celtics.
The once mighty team that was clearly the dominant power in the Eastern Conference has fallen in the eyes of many.
At least for me, not knowing why they are playing poorly is much more frustrating than their actual performance. You can point to whatever you'd like as the cause for their troubles: the Kendrick Perkins trade, age, health, whatever.
But I don't buy it.
The only common thread over the last two months or so has been inconsistent effort. Defense has struggled, offense has struggled. Performing even the most basic tasks like getting into an offensive set without wasting too much time has become an onerous enterprise.
The Celtics have struggled in all facets of the game. It's impossible to point to one thing as the reason why.
Blaming a roster shakeup and chemistry issues, or even frustration on the part of the players would be plausible in some cases.
But for this team—one with four All-Stars and likely four Hall of Famers—a team which has been so resilient for nearly four years, accrediting these issues as the reason for their poor performances almost seems like a cop out.
I'd like to think that this team, which has experienced and accomplished so much, was tough enough to endure through the questions and concerns that have followed the team since the trading deadline.
But after watching this team simply go through the motions night in and night out during the second half of the season, I've come to only one conclusion.
As a team, the Celtics just didn't perform.
They didn't step up. They didn't exert the necessary amount of effort to hold on to a No. 1 or even a No. 2 seed. They don't deserve to sit atop the Eastern Conference.
Blaming issues like the absence of Kendrick Perkins or issues with chemistry are excuses. They aren't harsh enough. They avoid placing the blame where it truly lies: on the shoulders of Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Glen Davis, the core of this Celtics team.
We haven't seen the Celtics play hard enough to really examine their shortcomings and their strengths as a team in the wake of the Perkins trade. Maybe they aren't good enough to win a championship, but maybe they are. We don't know, because we've yet to see this team show up for any significant stretch of games.
All of this raises the question of whether or not the Celtics will be ready for the playoffs.
In one sense, they won't be, as Shaquille O'Neal's return is up in the air. But at the same time, they don't need Shaq to beat any potential first-round foe.
He might not even be of much use in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls if Jermaine O'Neal and Nenad Krstic are healthy. The Bulls have a good interior, but I'd be much more concerned with the pick-and-roll defense on players like Derrick Rose and Luol Deng, which has been an issue for the Celtics lately.
Shaq doesn't help much in that area.
The C's might only really need Shaq's skill-set if they were to meet up with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals. His size inside can be effectively utilized against the best big-man trio in the league.
So, that leaves us all with one question: What will it take for the Celtics to be ready for the playoffs?
If you believe that the Celtics don't have the requisite roster talent to make another championship run, that's one thing. But if you're like me, and you believe that a team which has been so good for so long just doesn't up and disappear, then the answer is quite simple.
The Celtics need effort. They need energy. They need to play with urgency and with toughness. They need their championship swagger. They don't need "hero ball" and they need to start everything on the defensive end.
All of these components have been missing lately.
The talent on this team is good enough to win another ring, but they need to perform at their highest level if they want to do so.
I'm hoping that the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs will invoke the spark needed to get back on track, similar to last year.
I'm hoping that the fact that the Celtics can no longer afford to talk about doing instead of actually doing, will inspire the team to perform.
Most importantly, I'm hoping that the Celtics realize that this is likely their last shot at winning a title for awhile.
I'm hoping that the "Big Three" realize that a second championship will cement their names in the record books as one of the greatest collections of talent ever.
I'm hoping for banner 18.
Dan is a Boston Celtics featured columnist. Follow him on twitter @dantheman_06.