Friday May 21st, 2010

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The faded piece of paper is long gone, not needed anymore. For what felt like an eternity, it was taped to Doc Rivers desk, a reminder of the challenges he faced in his first few seasons with the Celtics. Penned onto the paper was a list of names: Gerald Green. Al Jefferson. Sebastian Telfair. Kendrick Perkins. Names of Rivers' straight-out-of-high-school stars, players with exorbitant talent but little understanding of the basics of basketball.

"[The list] reminded me not to get frustrated with them about fundamentals," said Rivers. "Because they [didn't] have a lot of them."

The list is history, along with most of the players. Green is out of the NBA and Telfair and Jefferson are wearing different uniforms. And the one player who remains on the roster, Perkins, isn't a cause for concern anymore. Boston holds a 2-0 series lead over Orlando in the Eastern Conference finals, thanks in large part to the rugged defense of the fundamentally sound Perkins, who has frustrated Dwight Howard and thrown Orlando's offense out of whack. The Magic's offense is predicated on teams swarming to Howard, freeing up their many prolific perimeter players. With Perkins hammering Howard and his 6-foot-11, 265-pound frame, Boston's defenders have had the luxury of staying home on defense.

"There's probably only four or five guys in the NBA who can do that," said Rivers.

Perkins' defensive technique has improved significantly since he arrived in the NBA in 2003 straight out of Clifton J. Ozen (Texas) high school. His footwork is superior and he can cleverly anticipate many moves. But there is not a lot of science to his style. You hit him, he hits you back. You hit him again, he hits you harder.

"Perkins is a throwback big man," said Michael Finley. "A lot of big men are [in the NBA] based on their athletic ability and scoring from the outside. Perk takes pride in his defense. He gives us the ability not to double team, similar to what Tim Duncan gave us in San Antonio."

Said Rivers, "Tree Rollins was like that. Dan Roundfield, too. I had those two guys standing behind me when I was playing. They were either going to block your shot or knock the heck out of you. A lot of teams in the league would take a guy you can throw down in the post and never have to double team."

The NBA landscape isn't littered with prolific scoring pivots, but most of the ones out there Perkins is often able to contain. In March, Perkins held Dallas' Brendan Haywood to three points. A week later, Perkins held San Antonio's Tim Duncan to eight points. In the first round, Perkins stifled Miami's Jermaine O'Neal (4.2 points per game), and in the conference semifinals, Shaquille O'Neal was limited to 13.5 points. In Game 1 of this series, Perkins helped hold Howard to 13 points (on 3-of-10 shooting).

This level of defense was exactly what Rivers hoped he would get when he took over the Celtics in 2004. It's why the coaching staff took great pains to make sure Perkins was forced to become an elite defender.

"We identified early on what we thought he could be," said Rivers. "It takes some time for guys to buy into that. Everyone wants to be a great scorer. Since he has been here we have tried not to trap with Perk. He has had to learn the hard way by guarding tough guys not getting a lot of help. Over the long haul I think he has gotten better and better. His feet are great. He studies film. I think he has had a great education of bigs. And when Kevin [Garnett] came it gave him another guy to back him up when he did get beat."

As Perkins defensive prowess grows, so too does his confidence. Ask him who the best post defender in the game is, Perkins points to his chest. If Boston is to finish off Orlando and advance to their second NBA Finals in the last three years, that's exactly what he has to be.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.