Young teams strive to play like the old, and old teams dream of being young again. On Wednesday the elders believed they knew better but lost all the same.
"It's tougher for you when you know you were in the game, and you had it, and you still lost it,'' said coach Doc Rivers after his Celtics lost 109-104 to the Oklahoma City Thunder. "That's a tough one. That doesn't happen very often. When we play well, we usually win.''
The interesting dynamic of this game is that the Celtics as they are today were created by the Thunder, and vice versa. It goes back to three years ago, when the Thunder were still based in Seattle as the SuperSonics and their new GM Sam Presti choose to deal Ray Allen on draft day to the Celtics for their No. 5 pick as well as Delonte West and Wally Szczerbiak. That promising move convinced Kevin Garnett to come to Boston and help Allen and Paul Pierce to win the championship the following season. That same move liberated the Thunder to rebuild around Kevin Durant as their young leader.
Three years later and Durant was scoring 37 points on 20 attempted field goals and 15 free throws, making more from the line than all of the older Celtics put together. "I thought we were playing Michael [expletive] Jordan tonight the way he was getting the whistle,'' said Garnett afterwards.
Knowing what they know now, following an unraveling series of losses to the younger legs of the Hawks and Grizzlies and Thunder, would the Celtics repeal that draft-day trade? Of course they wouldn't. May the ghost of Red Auerbach haunt the soul of anyone who would dare undo a deal that resulted in Boston's 17th championship. It was a bold plan executed gloriously.
So now they find themselves on the other side of that championship, trying to hold their ground even as they slide down the steep hill. They are forced to confront reality by Durant and the Thunder, the league's youngest team, who from that trade three years ago have built a sudden and exciting playoff contender.
With the No. 5 pick they chose Jeff Green, who is listed at 6-foot-9 but was viewed as undersized for a power forward. More important was his role as a complement to Durant, who was the No. 2 choice overall that year. Here was a high draft pick who would have to live with receiving little attention while sharing the frontcourt with Durant, and yet this oversight -- which would bother many young players a great deal -- has never appeared to mean anything to Green.
"The one thing you see when a young team plays well, it's clear that there's one player that's better than all the other young players,'' said Rivers. "That allows all of the other young players to play their roles. In most cases, young teams are all even [in terms of the players' talent] and they're all fighting each other to be the star. There's no doubt that Durant is the guy on this team.''
With a quartet of top-five picks over the last three years -- yes, that pick from the Celtics hastened the Thunder's renovations -- Presti could have very simply chosen the most talented player or the prospect with the biggest upside. But he already had that player in Durant. So instead he picked James Harden with the No. 3 pick last year while bypassing point guard Tyreke Evans, because Harden is not only versatile but also a low-maintenance talent willing to come off the bench to support Durant and other teammates. In 2008 he used the No. 4 pick on Russell Westbrook (21 points and 10 assists in this game), a raw point guard who was less valued by most NBA teams, but was viewed by Presti as a potentially explosive scorer and defender who could create the pace necessary for Durant and his teammates to excel. In 2007 he spent the No. 5 pick from Boston on Green, who finished with 17 points after twice in the final two minutes Wednesday leaving Garnett behind on screens to catch and drill threes that transformed a one-point Thunder lead into the more comfortable final margin.
The Celtic leader admitted to surprise over Green's deep shooting. "Yeah, actually,'' said Garnett, who entered this season with 14 NBA seasons behind him, which is one year more than Oklahoma City's entire starting five. "I saw as he had been shooting the ball [well] as of late, but up until those two threes I don't think he was even that much of a factor, to be honest. We were helping off him and he hit two big threes.''
It is highly promising for the Thunder to realize how much they share in common with the championship team they hope to emulate someday. While Boston won the 2008 NBA Finals by preaching ubuntu -- a Bantu term from southern Africa that is defined as a pursuit of the greater good -- the Thunder has been pursuing a similar ideal. "I don't think about this being a young team,'' said Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks, a coach of the year favorite. "If you're in the draft, you had better start thinking of yourself as an NBA player. I demand we play at a high level with effort.''
Who doesn't make those demands? Like the Celtics of two years ago, the Thunder hold themselves accountable to those standards. Earlier this season Durant, who is 21, became the only active player to score 25 or more points in 29 consecutive games, yet he has not been thoroughly impressed. He wants to be more like the more accomplished Kevin he beat Wednesday. "Over the last four or five games he was our best defender,'' said Brooks, who even put Durant with success on the Spurs' hot Manu Ginobili recently.
The Thunder have earned more victories already than the 43 they managed over Durant's initial two years. They have the 10th-best record because they have established the fourth-best field goal defense. Yet on this night they seemed to bring out the best in the Celtics, who appeared lively and confident while shooting 59.5 percent from the field.
With their defense failing, the Thunder took it to their elders offensively. They earned twice as many free throw attempts than the 17 that were whistled for the Celtics, and Oklahoma City made 28 of them. Rivers clearly disagreed with the officials' perspective, but it is becoming more and more difficult for him to stave off the perception that his team is too old to be feisty against the talented younger teams.
When these two teams agreed to that trade three years ago, each headed off on an opposite path. The Celtics succeeded in winning now. And now the Thunder are succeeding in winning later.
"We've grown,'' said Durant after he had slammed the ball triumphantly at the final buzzer. Then he quickly amended himself and added, "We've grown up.''