By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Brooding Kendrick Perkins has handled being a punchline of sorts by his own teammates and those too-often incredulous, face-palming hometown fans with a playful touch. But what the Oklahoma City Thunder will need from their starting, sometimes stumbling center in the Western Conference finals is no laughing matter.
Power forward Serge Ibaka, the league’s leading shot blocker and the Thunder’s third-leading scorer, is expected to miss the remainder of the playoffs with a left calf strain. Perkins, known more in OKC for his menacing scowl and misfiring putbacks than any meaningful point production, won’t be asked to duplicate Ibaka’s mid-range game. But Perkins’ 270-pound presence at the other end must be problematic for Tony Parker‘s penetrations and Tim Duncan‘s myriad of moves in the paint.
In early April, Perkins ignited a rally against the Spurs early in the third quarter in a way really only he can with a two-handed shove of Duncan after the whistle. The crowd howled and after the theatrics, OKC was off to the races, snapping the Spurs’ 19-game streak and making it a 4-0 sweep in the regular season.
“We’re a team that’s going to come and get real physical with you,” Perkins said after the game, which was his first back from groin surgery that sidelined him for six weeks.
Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers coach who coached Perkins in Boston where they won the 2008 championship and some say lost the 2010 Finals against the Lakers because Perkins was injured and couldn’t play in Game 7, placed a value on Perkins that he says numbers simply can’t.
“You just can’t,” Rivers said. “He does so many things on the floor, off the floor, he gives every team he’s on a perception of toughness. You know, I was amazed the difference when we [the Celtics] lost him (in the trade to Oklahoma City on Feb. 24, 2011). I’m not saying the next year, I’m saying the next week.
“After he was gone, all of a sudden now it felt like we were under attack. No one was scared of us anymore in Boston.”
This postseason, even some of Perkins’ numbers are revealing his value on the floor. He’s shooting 52.8 percent from the floor — his high mark since the 2009 playoffs and up from 26.3 percent last postseason when he was roundly ridiculed — meaning he’s sticking those put-backs, and even a decent number of those mechanical, one-handed push shots he attempts.
He was key in the Thunder’s Game 2 win over L.A., going for eight points and nine rebounds. Averaging 21.0 mpg, he’s grabbed six or more rebounds in six of 13 playoff games.
Like Rivers, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has maintained a high level of loyalty to Perkins, sticking with the 6-foot-10 native Texan when he’s struggled, and even when a smaller lineup would seem appropriate.
But Brooks’ confidence won’t magically allow the ground-bound Perkins to replicate the athleticism, strength and shot-blocking of the ever-evolving Ibaka, who has become so confident that he’s taken to mimicking the Dikembe Mutombo finger wave after denying an opponent at the rim. During his MVP speech, Kevin Durant praised Ibaka for cleaning up so many of the team’s defensive mistakes.
Losing Ibaka is hardly ideal, particularly against the Spurs’ front line of Duncan and burly Tiago Splitter. But the Thunder are more prepared to soldier on without him than in previous postseasons. Veteran Nick Collison is crafty and reliable regardless of the minutes he’s granted from series to series or game to game. And 7-foot rookie Steven Adams continues to get better while providing rock-solid minutes at both ends.
“He’s playing with a great level of confidence,” Perkins said after Adams posted 10 points and 11 rebounds in the Game 6 win against the Clippers.
The fierce New Zealander was drafted 12th overall last June by the Thunder after playing just one season at Pittsburgh. He’s averaging 16.3 mpg, but has shown he has the stamina to go much deeper if called upon. He logged 40 minutes in Game 6 and more then 20 minutes three more times. He has soft hands for a big man and is adept at catching and finishing as the ball inevitably comes his way underneath when his man leaves to help on Durant or Russell Westbrook.
“The unsung heroes on our team are our bigs,” Brooks said. “I say it all the time, I’ll continue to say it, they set screens, do a lot of things to put us in position to win a lot of basketball games.”
One significant big is down. It’s up to Perkins and his pals to pick him up.