BOSTON — The Celtics (clearly) don’t intend to put their best foot forward entering the NBA Playoffs, and it became abundantly clear during Thursday night’s 118-109 loss to the Knicks at TD Garden.

Enough is enough.

Yes, Boston’s already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Yes, the team’s already secured its home-court playoff advantage, and yes, the Celtics have validated themselves as the top dog this season — which won’t change, regardless of how the final two matchups unfold. But all of that begs the question: does any of that buy Boston the leeway to take a knee and run out the clock until the playoffs officially begin?

“I did not like the effort level in the first half,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla said when reflecting on Boston’s 69-48 halftime deficit.

Story continues below advertisement

While the Celtics have earned the liberty of not being impacted by the result of the final few weeks of the regular season, that’s not the reality of the rest of the conference. Therefore, it’s easy to interpret why teams like the Knicks, while shorthanded, would refuse to bow to anyone in the league. Boston learned yet another lesson the hard way in playing down to a New York team that’s now improved to 16-19 without three-time All-Star forward Julius Randle. What’s growingly difficult to understand is why the Celtics suddenly succumbed to bad habits knowing they translated to last season’s playoff run and held them back from a second straight trip to the NBA Finals.

If the starting five, the horse that Boston’s ridden toward its highest win total since the 2007-08 finals-winning squad, sees no reason to value the final few matchups, then force value. Mazzulla’s reached the point where the Celtics shouldn’t be forced to sit the starters after falling in double figures to the Knicks, and instead rest Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis, Jrue Holiday and Derrick White.

    What do you think?  Leave a comment.

That’ll open the door for Xavier Tillman Sr. to get starting minutes at the five, and for Jaden Springer — who’s made 14 appearances off the bench — to play alongside Payton Pritchard. That’s value in games deemed meaningless against the Hornets and Wizards.

When asked what the Celtics could take away from losing for the first time in five matchups with the Knicks, a team Boston could face in the playoffs, Mazzulla kept his response short, sweet and to the point.

Story continues below advertisement

“Rebounding,” Mazzulla replied.

The Celtics were torn to bits on the glass, out-rebounded, 52-36, responsible for also coughing up 56 points in the paint to New York. It became painful for a pact TD Garden crowd to sit back and watch Boston giftwrap the Knicks a freebie with a fully healthy starting five on the floor.

Boston’s always-itchy 3-point trigger unsurprisingly wasn’t of any help once desperation arose. The Celtics shot just 16-of-42 from three, and it wasn’t until Mazzulla yanked the starting five in the final 47.1 seconds of the third quarter, that the contest became somewhat interesting.

Story continues below advertisement

Brown, who played 29 minutes and 15 scored points, was held to just two rebounds. Boston’s starters were limited to 21 rebounds and committed nine turnovers collectively.

“It’s different if you lose off X’s and O’s or whatever, but teams just (getting) 21 shots off the glass, and that’s rebounding. I only had one rebound tonight,” Brown explained. “We just gotta rebound. We gotta play physical, more tough and we gotta get the job done. We just gotta nip that in the bud. We’re gonna have some tough practices and we’re gonna be ready.”

Momentum is critical when heading into the playoffs.

Last season, the No. 8 seed Heat was viewed as a first-round bounce after barely sneaking in. However, in the snap of a finger, Miami found itself in the conference finals. The Celtics drew the short end of that seven-game battle, but to repeat that fate after using the final week of the regular season as meaningless cardio would be a significantly worse look.

Story continues below advertisement

There’s releasing some slight pressure from the gas and there’s blatantly mailing in the third-to-final game of the season. Does Mazzzulla’s starting five really need a refresher course of that difference in April?

“It’s not who we are. We got booed at the end for a reason,” Porzingis said, per NBC Sports Boston. “This is not the team that our fans love. This wasn’t that display, but best believe we’re gonna show up when we need to.”

The Celtics have time but need to decide who they’ll be entering the playoffs. Are they content with 60-plus wins, top-tier statistical standings and glowing weekly power rankings? Or… is Boston hungry for getting something meaningful done and giving the 2008 championship banner another companion in the rafters?

Featured image via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images