BOSTON -- Doc Rivers said it before the game. He repeated it after the game. The Celtics' coach looks at the Indiana Pacers and sees a younger version of the team he took to the NBA's promised land.
"They've done a great job of adding pieces and adding them quickly," Rivers said. "It's amazing to me. It's like watching a young version of us. I know. I hate to say it. But they're young. They're scary. And they're good."
Could you blame Doc Rivers if he'd rather have been patrolling the Pacers' bench Friday?
That was before the Pacers went out and overwhelmed the Celtics 87-74, crushing them on the glass and pulling away down the stretch. You know, sort of what the Celtics have done every now and then to other teams over the past few years.
"They were us," Rivers repeated afterward. "They knocked us off the block. They were the instigator the whole night, and all we did was whine and not retaliate."
Rivers might be more prescient than he knows. Back in 2007-08, when Rivers was leading the Celtics to their 17th NBA championship, the Washington Wizards had a young scout by the name of Frank Vogel. From afar, Vogel watched how Rivers led the championship team, a team that used the word "ubuntu" to signify unity and sacrifice.
Fast forward to Friday night at the Garden: Vogel is in his first full season as the coach of the Pacers. And after being told of Rivers' comments, he cracked a smile and said, "Well, we're trying to be them."
He wasn't just blowing smoke. Before every practice and film session, Vogel said, he writes the word "togetherness" on the board. It's his version of ubuntu. And it's all because of Rivers.
"One-hundred percent because of Doc," he said. "I don't know him very well, but the year they won the championship, I heard him use the word 'togetherness' about a million times. And what he did with that team was an inspiration to me, and I am trying my best to recreate that here [in Indiana]."
Rivers loved what he saw Friday night -- from Indiana. His own group? Not so much. Paul Pierce made one shot from beyond 2 feet all night (he was 3-of-17.) The bench was brutal. The Pacers dominated the glass and had a 19-5 advantage in second-chance points.
But what stuck out more than the individual stats was Indiana's resolve, determination and focus. The Pacers looked like an experienced, savvy, impervious-to-pressure group that wasn't afraid to throw its collective weight around.
"They were in our air space,"
Rivers said, using a favorite term to describe inside advantage. "We always talk about owning the air space. That's who we are. And they were us -- for the entire game. I just thought they did it better than us."
He's right. They did it much better. Indiana's penetration resulted in a lot of the second-chance opportunities, frustrating Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal. Even rookie Greg Stiemsma was, well, steamed.
"It's tough when you play defense, and then something breaks down at the end and they get another shot," Stiemsma said. "But you gotta play through it. We just came up on the short end."
What bothered Rivers as much or even more than his team's inability to rebound was his team's inability to generate anything more than a CYO-scale offense. The Celtics scored 14 points in the first quarter. They scored 25 in the first half, tying the franchise record for fewest points in a first or second half. They shot 39.4 percent for the game and had only 16 assists.
"That is not us," Rivers said.
Ideally, no. Of course it isn't. What Rivers yearns to see again might be a quixotic quest, but it is exactly what Vogel is trying to see on a regular basis from his Pacers who, by the way, are 5-2. Vogel is 38 but looks young enough to be carded at any bar. But if you listen to him, you hear Larry Brown or Red Holzman or, dare we say it, Doc Rivers, circa 2007?
"Both last year [after replacing the fired Jim O'Brien] and this year, I have shown our guys what Boston Celtics selflessness is all about on tape, time and again," Vogel said. "They won a championship because of togetherness and teamwork. You play with physicality and toughness, and you win with defense and rebounding and sharing the ball."
He paused and added, "That is what I want our identity to be."
Friday night, the Pacers made the Celtics look old, slow and scattered. For one night anyway, it was exactly the role reversal Frank Vogel envisions -- and the one Doc Rivers hopes he doesn't see anymore.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.