As the final buzzer sounded during Sunday night's 92-83 loss to Boston, Thunder coach Scott Brooks walked to mid-court at Oklahoma City Arena and shook hands with Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
"Your guys are tough," Rivers told Brooks.
Turns out, the Thunder isn't nearly tough enough. Not yet, anyway.
This was a game that showed the difference between a team that is a title contender and a team that wants to be one someday.
Boston thrashed the Thunder 105-87 last year at the Ford Center, a clinic which Brooks called the most thorough performance against his team last season.
Sunday was more of the same as the Celtics built a 22-point lead with 8:44 left in the third quarter. "Against a great team like that, you can't dig yourself a hole and try to get out of it," Thunder small forward Kevin Durant said.
The Thunder closed out the third period with a 13-2 run and narrowed the deficit to 73-67 on a James Harden 3-pointer with 11:17 left in the contest.
But this game of streaks quickly flopped as Boston (6-1) answered with a 15-4 run of its own, regained control at 88-71 with 7:04 left and the Thunder never got closer than the game's final margin.
"We got up on a great team, and had to keep playing that way to win the game," Rivers said.
What did in the Thunder (3-3) were 18 turnovers, which the Celtics transformed into 21 points.
"Our effort was fine tonight," Brooks said. "We actually played decent defense. We were just turning the ball over. We've got to do a better job of taking care of the basketball. We've done a pretty decent job all year long (tied for sixth in the league), but in this game it kind of snuck up on us. We turned the ball over too many times, and that led to too many easy buckets."
The Thunder displayed streaky shooting, finishing at 42.7 percent from the field, but did shoot a season-high 40 percent (4 for 10) from 3-point range. Durant led the Thunder with 34 points (17 in each half) on 11-of-22 shooting.
It seemed as though every shot the Thunder took was contested defensively.
"We showed bodies. We showed hands," Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said. "Durant got loose in the second half, but we played defense for 48 minutes."
Russell Westbrook had 16 points (15 in the second half), 10 assists, four steals and two blocked shots, but also had eight turnovers.
Serge Ibaka filled in for starter Jeff Green, who suffered a sprained ankle at Saturday's practice and is listed day-to-day after missing his first start since March 2009. Ibaka had a game-high 11 rebounds and eight points.
Ray Allen led Boston with 19 points, Paul Pierce scored 17 and point guard Rajon Rondo had 10 points and 10 assists.
"They're a title-contending team," Brooks said of the Celtics. "In order for us to play against elite teams, we really have to play good basketball for 48 minutes."
Brooks considered it another lesson learned, and it was not due to a lack of trying.
"Playing against the Celtics, they make you look at yourself in different ways because they challenge you in so many ways," Brooks said. "They're a physical team, they're smart, they're aggressive. They know how to play, but they've played a lot of basketball. We want to get there one day."