DALLAS — Kendrick Perkins is coming home, so to speak, for the Western Conference finals.
A Beaumont, Texas, native, his first dip in this Red River NBA Rivalry should be an interesting one for another reason, considering he’ll be facing the man that almost had his job as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting center.
Before Tyson Chandler showed up here and helped turn the Dallas Mavericks into a defensive-minded force, he was on his way to the Thunder. Chandler was on his way to the Thunder, at the time he was traded from the New Orleans Hornets for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox, in a deal in February 2009 that was later rescinded when Chandler failed his physical (injured toe) with the Thunder’s medical staff.
Instead of manning the middle the for the upstart Thunder, Chandler is doing so for the Mavericks and is facing a player just as anxious to mix it up in the post as he is. That’s why we fully expect the play of these two big men to swing the momentum from night to night in this series.
“There’s no doubt about it,” a scout friend told me via text this morning when I raised the same point to him. “Whoever controls the middle of the lane controls this series. Even with all the explosive offensive talent that will be on display in that series, it’s going to come down to who can guard the rim the best.”
If you’ve watched the Mavericks as much as we have around here the past month, you’d understand how truly indispensable Chandler is for a team that had no defensive identity before he arrived.
And to think folks weren’t excited when the Mavericks pulled the trigger on the deal to get Chandler last summer, as Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com pointed out:
It was actually considered a letdown when the Mavs pulled the trigger on the trade July 13, days after the Charlotte Bobcats’ deal to send Chandler to the NBA Siberia known as Toronto fell through. There had been so much hype, fueled by owner Mark Cuban‘s vow to swing for the free-agency fences, that the Mavs would use Erick Dampier‘s expiring contract as a chip in a sign-and-trade deal to land a superstar to pair with Dirk Nowitzki.
Chandler, a nine-year veteran who had never been an All-Star and was coming off two injury-plagued seasons, didn’t fit that bill. However, with the ankle that had caused him to sit 68 games the previous two years completely healed, he did fill a major void for the Mavericks as a defensive-minded, athletically gifted big man with strong emotional and vocal leadership qualities.
“We knew he was capable,” Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. “We knew that he was almost the perfect fit. It’s just, could he stay healthy? Once we got comfort with that this summer, and then he did the USA piece and that was another confidence builder, he just hit the ground running in training camp and never looked back.”
Perkins provides the same sort of toughness as the Thunder’s defensive anchor. He did the same thing for the Boston Celtics before they traded him in February, a move the Celtics paid for dearly as they headed for an early vacation last week at the hands of the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Without Perkins there to watch Kevin Garnett‘s back, the Celtics had to rely on Jermaine O’Neal to handle those duties and as good as he was earlier in his career, he wasn’t up to the task. Shaquille O’Neal never got healthy enough to resume his role with the Celtics.
The Celtics’ loss has been the Thunder’s gain. As NBA.com’s Shaun Powell wrote in this same space in March, Perkins changed everything for the Thunder and that includes speeding up the championship clock for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the youngsters.
Perkins was a great fit in Boston, on and off the floor, and especially in the Celtics’ locker room. You saw how emotional they all were when Danny Ainge made the deal. Still, as great as the ride was with the Celtics, Perkins might be having an even better experience this time going up against his home state Mavericks, per his own words to The Oklahoman:
“Yeah, it does [feel different this time]. As soon as we won last night, I got all kinds of phone calls about tickets so it made me feel close to home. One thing I can say, when I was in Boston, it was fun. But last night, it was real fun. Being around a group of guys – KD (Kevin Durant), who’s just a great guy – and then just to see all the (fans react), it was just unbelievable. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”