Thunder need Perk of old to return
They call him "Perk" for one very obvious reason, but that's really just too simple. Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins needs a new nickname, and we're here to start the suggestion box.
The opponents whose nightmares he creates want to pretend he doesn't exist, that the stories you've heard about how scary he can be are all just the product of someone else's imagination. But next thing they know, sleep sets in and is followed by the cold sweat. And whether they want to admit he was there or not, another game has been ruined.
His old Celtics teammates certainly seemed to have the chills up until recently. And truth be told, Boston's decision to send him to the Thunder in mid-February will be judged on the final outcome of these playoffs and not a first-round sweep of the hobbled New York Knicks. Meanwhile, on the other side of the deal, the Thunder's opening-round elimination of Denver is just further proof that Perkins and his impact are very real.
But you wouldn't have known that based on Game 1 of the Thunder's second-round series against Memphis on Sunday, when a player so instrumental in Oklahoma City's defensive improvement late in the season failed to make an impact. Perkins finished with two points and six rebounds while Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol combined for 54 points and 23 rebounds and dominated the offensive glass in the Grizzlies' 114-101 victory.
Oklahoma City needs Perkins to re-establish himself inside if it intends to bounce back against a Memphis team that isn't playing like an eighth seed.
"I take full accountability of this game," Perkins told reporters after the Thunder's first home loss of the postseason. "I feel like I let us down."
Perkins is one of the few difference-makers in this league whose worth can't be gauged by a box score. There is, after all, no mainstream statistic for successful screens, altered shots, perfectly executed defensive rotations or tone-setting stares. As a result, opposing coaches and players routinely downplay his impact as some form of basketball mythology.
But, his most recent performance aside, he is doing for the Thunder what he did for the Celtics in his first seven-plus seasons, and the only numbers that matter to the 26-year-old Texan are the ones that continue to reflect so glowingly upon him: the record. Despite Sunday's loss, the Thunder are 17-6 with Perkins in the lineup, a .739 winning percentage that trumps Boston's .594 mark (19-13) since he left town in a trade for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.
With a maturing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook carrying the scoring load, forward Serge Ibaka now free to play his natural power forward position and coach Scott Brooks preaching the defensive principles that are suddenly so much easier, the Thunder have found a nice balance.
"I knew from watching [Perkins] with the Celtics that he was a tough guy who took pride in the defensive end of the floor," Brooks said recently. "He's tough. He brings championship experience. He knows how to play. He sets great screens. He's a ball mover. He's just a good player.
"You're not going to ever look at his stats and say, 'Wow, this guy just dominates the game statistically.' He does a lot of the little things that help you win games."
As Perkins showed in the days leading up to an April 10 meeting at the Lakers, he is hardly over the heartache of last year's Finals. His decision to call Lakers forward Pau Gasol "soft" was akin to trash-talking the girlfriend who dumped you months before, although this breakup came with pain of the physical and emotional kind. Perkins' Game 6 knee injury not only kept him out of the finale in which the Lakers defended their title, but it also led to offseason knee surgery that sidelined him until late January.
"You never let go of that," Perkins said. "I don't care how far you move on in life, there's always going to be a 'what if.' "
By the time he returned, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge and assistant GM Mike Zarren had decided their team could thrive without him. But there's a difference between going 33-10 without a 6-foot-10, 280-pound center in the regular season (which Boston did) and making a title run in the playoffs (which so many believe they won't). The Thunder, on the contrary, are hoping Perkins' presence will speed up their already-fast growth process to becoming championship contenders.
"I'm trying [to speed it up]," said Perkins, who was a major part of Boston's 2008 championship team. "We're definitely trying. I'm trying to fit in and trying to instill what I learned going forward, what I learned from [Kevin Garnett] and them and [Boston coach] Doc Rivers. What I learned from them is how to play championship ball, how to carry it over and continue all the time. Nothing more, nothing less.
"It's possible [to win a title] if the guys stick together and everybody does their role. Hopefully we just keep believing, keep trusting one another and go from there."
There wasn't much trust in the beginning, though, at least not in the mind of Oklahoma City's franchise player. Despite Thunder general manager Sam Presti almost immediately granting Perkins a four-year extension reportedly worth $34.8 million on March 1, Durant was wary of the move. He felt protective of his team's incredible chemistry, unsure that the snarling, trash-talking big man who has no shortage of enemies within the league was a good fit for his bunch.
"I didn't like him," Durant said. "He had words for our team [in previous matchups], and as a young guy you just thought he was mad at the world. But [eventually] I just saw that he was all business. Once you come off the floor, he's cool. I noticed that [personality trait] with KG, being around him, and noticed those two guys are very close. He's easy to love. He's a guy whose personality is off the charts."
Not to mention his basketball IQ. For all of Perkins' bravado, it's the nuances of his game that have impressed his new team the most.
"He's one of the smartest basketball players I've been around," Durant said. "He goes two, three plays ahead [mentally]. I got hit on a screen [against Denver on April 8] and I was a little late, and all he did is put his hand out and played two guys, basically three guys. ... That's something we didn't have before."
"Usually with the tough guys, you just think they're all bullies, but he knows how to play," he said. "He knows coverages very well. He picks up things quickly. He understands what it takes to win games. You've got to bring that mental and physical toughness every night. He brings it in practice. He brings it in shootarounds. And he brings it in the games.
"When you make a trade in the middle of the season, as a coach you're always worried about the flow, the chemistry, but it makes it easier when you're bringing a player that's just about winning."