By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Kendrick Perkins‘ PER — if you’re familiar with such statistics — sinks lower than his scowl. And he’s useless against the Miami Heat. And…
It didn’t stop stubbornly loyal Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks Thursday night from happily penciling the league’s most poked-at big man — even by, and especially so, the locals — back into the starting lineup for the first time in six weeks against the unbeatable Spurs. Perkins returned from surgery to repair a strained groin suffered Feb. 20 against Miami.
What’d the perpetually peeved Perk do in 11 minutes, 59 seconds of action?: Zero points. Zero shot attempts. One rebound. One assist. One turnover. One blocked shot. And one two-armed shove of Spurs royalty Tim Duncan. The Thunder ate it up.
With 10:45 to go in the third quarter of a game that streaking San Antonio had controlled and led 53-50, Perkins wrapped his meaty right arm around Duncan’s chest, drawing a foul. When Perkins kept his bear claw pressed up against the future Hall of Famer’s slim torso, Duncan animatedly attempted to unlock himself. Perkins retaliated, shoving Duncan in the back. He mouthed something likely not repeatable as Duncan sort of playfully stumbled forward while flashing a sly smile as if to suggest Perk’s caveman methods were of no use here.
Only what happened next might suggest otherwise. The Thunder jacked up the intensity and blitzed the Spurs for a 15-5 run and a 65-58 lead by the time Perkins checked out for good with 5:28 left in the period. Oklahoma City cruised from there.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But Perkins, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich might say, brought the nasty.
“Every team needs that,” Popovich said after the Thunder ended the Spurs’ 19-game win streak with a 106-96 victory, one that also gave OKC a 4-0 season sweep of the reigning West champs. “He is an enforcer, he has an edge, he has a toughness. You know he plays not to take any prisoners kind of thing, and that is great for a team.”
The scowl is back, and the Thunder will take it. And contrary to what some believe, they’ll need it. Especially if OKC meets double-wide Memphis in the first round. Or the Clippers’ punishing front line. Or these Spurs once again in May.
“We’re a team that’s going to come and get real physical with you,” Perkins, averaging just 3.4 points and 4.9 rebounds a game, said afterward. “Our energy level was high. Early they came out and hit a lot of contested 2s and we kept saying that they’re not going to hit those shots all night, so I think we did a great job.”
For the first time in a long time, the Thunder were almost whole Thursday night. Now they only lack starting shooting guard and top perimeter defender Thabo Sefolosha. What they got Thursday night was a full dose of down-home Perkins attitude and the hot-blowing tempest of talent and temper of point guard Russell Westbrook. It’s a combination that the otherwise mild-mannered Thunder, only 11-6 with Perkins sidelined, must have.
While Kevin Durant kills with kindness, Westbrook and Perkins are the schoolyard bullies who’ll take your lunch money and leave you with a wedgie. The 6-foot-10, 270-pound Perkins is the man who earlier in the season kicked come-in-peace Bulls center Joakim Noah out of the Thunder’s home locker room when he dropped in to catch up with Swiss-born friend Sefolosha.
“Get your a– up outta here,” Perkins barked.
Before this expectation-laden season began, just before the Thunder discovered Westbrook would need a second surgery on his right knee (and eventually a third), Perkins lamented life without the team’s spring-loaded firecracker.
“You never know until they’re gone what you’re missing from certain individuals,” Perkins said. “I’m not just talking about Russell going on the attack, scoring 30 points and dishing out 10 assists. I’m talking about the other little things he brings to the table. Russell gives our team swag. He gives me swag, I feed off of him. I know this at all times, if I’m on the court and I got a frown on my face, I know one other person for sure whose got a frown on his face and that’s Russ. In the playoffs I couldn’t find him, I couldn’t find him. And you just don’t take people for granted. It’s not the big things, it’s the little things that matter.”
Perhaps there’s a bigger message in there.