Durant leads Thunder into Boston
WALTHAM, Mass. -- Call it a bit of advanced scouting, but Celtics center Kendrick Perkins was watching the Oklahoma City Thunder play on NBA TV recently and the one thing that stood out above all else came after the final buzzer.
"They interviewed Jeff Green after the game and he surprised me because he was like, 'We're a hard-working team, trying to win a championship,'" Perkins recalled after Tuesday's practice. "Well, no one picked Oklahoma City to even make the playoffs this year, but just the vibe in that locker room, to have one goal and that's to win a championship as a young team, I found that kind of crazy."
Crazy in a good way. After the pingpong balls bounced against the Celtics following a 24-win campaign in the 2006-07 season, Boston nearly saw Perkins and Green united as teammates.
Instead, the Celtics traded Green -- the fifth overall pick that year -- to Seattle as part of a package that brought Ray Allen to Boston and set into motion the uniting of the Big Three. You know what happened from there.
It's unlikely the Celtics would have fancied themselves as championship contenders before the trades that brought Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston. But, with help from those same pingpong balls, Oklahoma City landed Kevin Durant and that gave the Thunder almost immediate hope for greatness.
"For young teams to have any type of success, historically, you have to figure out who the best player is," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "With a young team, when everybody is good, everyone is fighting to find out who is the man. There's no question who's the man in Oklahoma."
On a team that averages a mere 25 years of age, it's the 21-year-old Durant that Rivers and his players were talking about most after Tuesday's practice.
The third-year forward is averaging 29.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game this season, while pacing the Thunder to a 45-28 record, which leaves them as the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference entering Wednesday's game.
Rivers fielded comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and George Gervin, but noted, "he's a Durant -- there's [no comparison] -- he's the original."
With a record comparable to the Celtics', Rivers admitted the Thunder are the type of team no opponent wants to see in the postseason, in particular because of Durant's abilities.
"People keep asking me who we want to play [in the playoffs], and [they ask about] Cleveland," Rivers explained. "One thing you want to avoid is having the best player on the other team. They're already playing good, even though they're young, and there's a good chance that the best player in that series is on Oklahoma City, so that makes them very dangerous."
The Celtics are bracing for Durant after he erupted for 36 points in the teams' previous meeting in Oklahoma City back in December. Despite changing their defense multiple times in that game, Boston didn't quite have an answer for him.
"He's one of the tougher guys to guard in the league," Rivers said. "It's his size and shot. Rarely do you get a 6-10, 6-11 guy running off screens like Ray Allen. Think of Ray Allen at 6-10, 6-11.
"We really had a difficult time in Oklahoma City. We won the game, but we changed our coverage three times. Which, for us, is a lot. In our opinion, we're 0-for-3. We haven't figured him out, but that's probably why he's a great player."
Rivers gushed about what they've put together in Oklahoma City, but dispelled the notion that, had the pingpong balls bounced in Boston's favor, the team would have eyed Durant.
"I was for [Greg] Oden," Rivers said. "I wanted the size and all that. Anybody that tells you otherwise, they have amnesia. That's all I'll say. I loved Durant, but I loved Oden's size. Clearly, I would have made a mistake. But I think everybody likes to say [they were for Durant over Oden]. That's all I'll say. I've heard them change a lot lately."
Can you blame those people? One player is leading the Western Conference in scoring (and is mere fractions of a point behind NBA-leading LeBron James), while the other has hardly been on the court over the past two-plus seasons.
But much of Oklahoma City's success is based on the players around Durant, including Green, who is averaging 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game in his third NBA season.
"It's hard to say you're surprised [about Oklahoma City's success], because the team is pretty good," Allen said when asked about the team's success with Durant and a young core. "You see a lot of guys come into the league and struggle the first two or three years, because they're on bad teams. [The Thunder] did a good job of putting together a good group of guys [around Durant]."
So does Allen ever catch himself playing the "What If?" game and pondering what his career might have been like playing next to Durant?
"That's so many 'What Ifs' you could put in play," Allen said. "That's sports. Who knows? I have a championship and that's something that can never be taken away."
While the Celtics won the first meeting by 18 points, suggesting the Thunder have a long way to go to be championship material, Rivers expects a much more competitive game Wednesday. Oklahoma City has already made great strides in just the past three months.
"Every game they get better because of their youth," Rivers said. "They're one team that was good then, but kept getting better and better and better. They'll be better next year because every game they get better. Next year, after this playoff experience, they are going to be a very tough team."
And maybe then it won't be a surprise to hear them talking about wanting to win a championship.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.