BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics' best bet for enticing Kevin Durant to consider Boston as a career destination this summer might have been showcasing an intriguing on-court product, but when that fizzled and the Oklahoma City Thunder started to break open Wednesday's nationally televised tilt, Celtics fans resorted to good old-fashioned begging.
With Durant shooting free throws midway through the third quarter, fans inside TD Garden started chanting, "Come to Boston!"
The Celtics laid out an orange-and-blue carpet for Durant and his teammates on Wednesday. The former MVP put up 28 points on 9-of-19 shooting to go with nine assists and seven rebounds over 30 minutes. He was plus-30 as the Thunder won 130-109, a victory that was even more lopsided than the score suggests.
Durant pleaded ignorance when asked about the chants. "I didn’t even hear that, man," he said. "I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They said that?"
Told fans did say exactly that and then asked his thoughts, Durant switched the topic: "No thoughts, really. I mean, I’m just happy we won."
Forgive Celtics fans for fawning over a superstar talent. If Russell Westbrook were hitting the free-agent market this summer, they would probably have chanted his name too, given his wrecking-ball ways at times during Wednesday's game (24 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals in just 26 minutes). But since Durant will be the biggest fish in the free-agent pond after the season, Celtics fans were simply doing their part to help convince him to at least listen to Boston's sales pitch.
Durant got Boston fans to take notice Wednesday when he offered nothing but praise for the green.
"I've been watching this team a lot," Durant told reporters at Oklahoma City's morning shootaround. "And they're scrappy. They play hard. They love their coach, they love their system and, especially in this building, they play with a lot of energy."
Well, most nights they play with a lot of energy. The Thunder sucked all the energy out of Boston with a dominant second half that included a 42-point third quarter that helped the visitors push their lead as high as 30 before Boston's youngsters trimmed it back in trash time.
"They're some of the best fans in the world and definitely support their team," added Durant. "I like the city a lot. It's cold, but they love sports here. This is a family atmosphere [that] I feel when I walk around the city. So yeah, I like it a lot."
But Durant offered maybe his most notable praise for Boston during an interview with ESPN before Wednesday's game.
"You can feel the tradition walking in here. You see all the [Celtics legends] plastered on the walls as you walk into the locker room," said Durant. "The tradition of being a Boston Celtic is second to none. So it's amazing playing here. The fans, they're very energetic and they cheer for their team. It's amazing to see as a player, to have fans that care about the game so much. It's an amazing sports town and they have a great team to cheer for."
Celtics coach Brad Stevens volleyed some praise before Wednesday's game when he said of Durant: "His ability to score is ridiculous. He can score on the block, he can score in transition, he can score in isolation, he can score off wide pindowns, he can score off pick-and-rolls, he can do it all. It's really difficult. When you add in the fact in that's he close to 7 feet tall, it becomes even more difficult. We're going to have to do our very best to make it as difficult as possible on him, with multiple different guys getting that assignment and that opportunity. It's a lot easier said than done."
A Celtics team playing without Jae Crowder put undersized Marcus Smart on Durant to start Wednesday's game. Durant responded by scoring his team's first seven points in just 78 seconds. "They had a mini on me, so I had to go in and take advantage," Durant said.
Boston has bigger concerns at the moment than trying to recruit a star for next year's roster. With Wednesday's loss, the Celtics slipped behind the idle Heat in the race for the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. What's more, with Atlanta's win, the Celtics are now tied with the Hawks for the No. 4 seed, while the Hornets -- 8-2 in their last 10 games -- shuffled to within a half-game of Boston after a win over the Magic.
Last week, the Celtics were being asked about a potential surge upon the currently second-seeded Raptors. After the Thunder loss, Isaiah Thomas dubbed Friday's visit to Toronto a must-win to simply snap Boston out of a three-game funk and a slide down the standings.
Reflecting on Wednesday's loss, Thomas, who scored a game-high 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting over 29 minutes, said, "They punked us. We’re playing soft as tissue."
Then asked about dubbing Toronto a must-win, he added, "Three losses in a row we've had [and Wednesday was] probably our worst loss of the season. We’ve got to win [in Toronto]. The playoff picture -- I'm not saying we’re not going to make the playoffs, but it’s close. It’s close. Toronto’s another test for us. We’ve got to be mature about the situation and just try to get a win."
The Celtics, healthy for much of the season, have been hindered by recent injuries. Crowder, maybe Boston's best two-way player this season and someone who brings the sort of toughness that Thomas craves, is sidelined by a high ankle sprain. Jonas Jerebko, coming off a season-high 17-point effort on Tuesday in Indiana, sat out Wednesday's game with a sore left ankle. Kelly Olynyk ended a 35-day, 12-game absence by returning versus the Thunder, but he is still shaking rust.
Thomas stressed that there can be no excuses. The Celtics can't wait to get healthy to right their ship.
"Like Brad said in here, ‘The season’s not based off 68 games, 69 games. It’s a full 82,'" Thomas said. "Especially in the Eastern Conference, a few games can have you down in the standings. So we’ve got to figure it out and show mental toughness on Friday. Toronto’s a great team. They’re one of the best teams in the NBA, and they’re not just going to give us a game, especially on their home floor. So we’ve got to really lock in and focus in and try to get the win."
While waiting for Boston to pick itself up off the mat, Celtics fans can take solace in more kind words from Durant, who gushed about Thomas. The two shared a brief moment inside the Thunder locker room after Wednesday's game when Thomas popped in with one of his sons to say hello to Durant.
"[Thomas] was definitely trying to keep them in the game with his scoring. I never seen a guy so small that can do just about anything on a basketball court," said Durant. "He goes to the paint, finishes over bigs, he can shoot the 3, pull up. He’s an All-Star player, so he played as hard as he could tonight, and I think we did a good job of making all his shots [difficult]. But great players make shots, and he’s one of them."