Kendrick Perkins in the background.

by Tzvi Twersky

“We’re unbeatable together.”—Doc Rivers

He’s always the odd man out. The man in the background or totally cropped out of the picture.

For the past three seasons, we’ve prattled on about the Big Three. Recently, over the course of the past few Playoff months, we’ve expanded it to the Fab Four, or reduced it to the Big One. In reality, though, as LeBron James—and plenty of other big names—have found out, it takes five to win an NBA Title.

The Boston Celtics may be about to learn that lesson, too.

Kendrick Perkins’torn right MCL and PCL will force him to sit out Tonight’s Game 7. Boston’s fifth starter’s absence will be noticeable, in contrast to his presence, which often goes unnoticed.

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Discussed more for his scowl than skills, the 6-10 Texan entered the League in 2003 stuffed fatter than a pig, with a skill set rawer than sushi.  But after receiving a wake-up call in the form of 35 minutes his rookie season, Perkins set out to become an impact player.

Between his sophomore season and 2007-08, Perk worked with Clifford Ray on his post moves. At the same time, he applied himself in the weight room, bettering his conditioning and physique.

Once his effort and body caught up with his preexisting nasty edge, Kendrick Perkins showed he belonged in the NBA. With averages of 4.5 ppg and 5.2 rpg in a little over 20 minutes per contest, Perk had willed his way into becoming a serviceable big.

Then, in the summer of 2007 Kevin Garnett arrived via trade, and while the two didn’t form a twin tower tandem on par with Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan and David Robinson, they were the Celtics’ tower and trebuchet—the designated long-armed, elbow-throwing, big-mouthed, intimidating bodies.

Under the continued tutelage of Garnett and assistant coach Ray, Perks’ play improved across the board in the C’s Championship ’08 season—especially on defense, where he, along with Kev, anchored a complex scheme.

During that run to the trophy, Perkins played a major part in Boston’s Eastern Conference Championship defeat of the Detroit Pistons.

With the series knotted up at one game a side, KP recorded a double double, out-producing Rasheed Wallace and Antonio McDyess, en route to a C’s victory. Four nights later, Perk one-upped himself, going for 18 points and 16 boards (five offensive) in a W.

Still, overshadowed by KG on the inside and Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on the wings, the center remained an unknown—the NBA’s version of a concert’s opening act.

Over the past two seasons, Perk’s tightened his tougher than Teflon play a few notches, and  his belt buckle an equal number. And though he’ll never be a great finisher or athlete, he’s developed into one of the best–and nastiest– post defenders in the League.

More than that, though, KP’s been the perfect complement to Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Perkins adds a level of toughness and possesses a blue collar attitude that nestles nicely with the somewhat softer play of the other four starters.

With all the adulation and attention young hoop phenoms receive, it’s rare to find an NBA player who lacks an ego. Kendrick Perkins is no exception; he just keeps it in check for the sake of the team–and that’s what makes him so valuable, so perfect, for what he does and where he plays.

With all the cameras and microphones pointed elsewhere, Perk doesn’t gripe, pout or seek out attention, he simply goes about his business, answering questions politely when asked, but otherwise remaining silent.

That attitude’s served him well on the court. But it’s also left him in the unenviable position of being known more as a  caricature, a punchline, than as an All-Defense caliber player.

Tonight, Boston will play L.A. with the 2010 Championship on the line. Unfortunately, for KP, he won’t be able to take the floor. Almost as unfortunately, it’s taken a knee injury for Perkins’ name to wind up in sports page.

He’s not Boston’s MVP–that title belongs to Paul Pierce or Rajon Rondo at this point–but he is the MUP, Most Undervalued Player.

Maybe if he smiled for the camera, that would change. Maybe if he was an attention whore, that would change. Maybe if he had a better set of hands, that would change.

Maybe…

They’ll never be known as the Fantastic Five, but, maybe, possibly, one day Kendrick Perkins will be known for more than his scowl.