It's always interesting to see the Celtics take on a team like tonight's opponent, the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder, because to this year's C's, a team like OKC serves as a time machine of sorts. Simply put, the Thunder are a glimpse at the absolute best-case scenario for the team's long-term future.
This franchise seven years ago was where the Celtics are now. Then the Seattle SuperSonics, they finished the 2006-07 season 31-51, the fifth-worst record in the NBA, earning them a top spot in the draft lottery, where they lucked out and landed second when the ping-pong balls fell their way.
In '07, they drafted Kevin Durant. In '08, Russell Westbrook. In '09, Serge Ibaka. Suddenly, the former bottom-feeders were a legitimate threat to win the Western Conference - which, in 2012, they did.
The Celtics can learn a thing or two from studying the Thunder's ascent. With all this talk of tanking and rebuilding through the draft that's buzzing around Boston, OKC looks like the perfect blueprint.
The ironic thing, though, is that tonight brought a Durant-less, Westbrook-less version of the Thunder to town. The team was without the marquee lottery picks that put it on the map - no leading scorer (sore shoulder) and no All-Star point guard (recovering from knee surgery).
Yet somehow, the Thunder won anyway. Quite convincingly, I might add.
Brad Stevens, the man who's been made the face of this long-term rebuild in Boston, bristled at the suggestion that the Celtics took the unleaded Thunder lightly.
"If that's the case, that would be severely disappointing," the head coach said in the wake of the 101-83 loss. "Look at their roster. Ibaka is Ibaka. [Kendrick] Perkins is as good of a winner as there is. [Thabo] Sefolosha is as good of a winner as there is, and a lockdown defender too. Reggie Jackson's playing at a high level. Jeremy Lamb is good off the bench. [Nick] Collison's been there forever. Derek Fisher's hit as many big shots as anybody in the NBA. So if we [overlooked the Thunder], that's not a good thing."
This was the first time in Thunder history that the team took the floor without Durant and Westbrook both. If tonight was any indication, they're just fine without their stars. The Thunder are now 34-10, the best record in a loaded Western Conference, and they appear to be executing flawlessly within their system, regardless of the personnel.
"They were really good," Stevens said. "The San Antonios of the world that have it all in place, you see them sit a few guys occasionally, and they play these games, and they just execute to a T and run people out of the gym no matter who's playing. They're getting to that point, Oklahoma City."
By the numbers, the Thunder's absences were pretty staggering. In Durant, they were without the world's best scorer - averaging 31.0 points per game on 50.4 percent shooting, 41.3 percent from 3, not to mention 7.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists a night. In Westbrook, they were lacking another 21.3, 7 and 6. These are the foremost talents in the world, and their stats are eye-popping.
But without the stars, the Thunder just slide someone else into place and keep clicking. Tonight, the Thunder got 21 points from Ibaka, plus 19 from Lamb and 14 from Jackson, and that was more than enough.
"They're down Kevin Durant, and I think their team's thinking, 'OK, this is an
opportunity for a lot of guys that don't play,'" Kris Humphries said. "They just stepped it up, played harder than us, executed, got a lot of easy shots and made the right plays. I think we did the complete opposite."
It's an interesting lesson in how to rebuild a roster and construct a winner. Clearly, it requires more than just a star player or two to make it work. There are also the small matters of hiring the right coach, implementing the right systems and installing role players who fit.
The Thunder have done all of that. Which is impressive, but not astounding when you look at it in perspective - after all, it took them more than a half-decade to get the machine running just right.
There's a moral here for Celtics fans: Andrew Wiggins won't change everything overnight. Basketball doesn't work that way, even if conventional wisdom claims that it's that simple.
Seven years from now, the Celtics might have a big star in the fold like a Wiggins or a Jabari Parker - but if they really rebuild right, they'll have a complete team that can even win without him.