With Kendrick Perkins on board, OKC is ready to go.
by Tracy Weissenberg
Rewind back to April 30 of the 2010 postseason.
The Thunder were down 3-2 against the No. 1 seeded Los Angeles Lakers. Oklahoma City fans blanketed the arena from corner-to-corner, forming a sea of blue to support their young team. For the Thunder, the more their record and ensuing postseason push resembled the NBA’s elite, the more their arena took on the atmosphere of a college.
With a fairytale season on the line, the Thunder were up 94-93 in the waning seconds of a take or break Game 6. With the final shot clock winding down, Kobe Bryant missed a jumper before Pau Gasol swooped in for a relatively uncontested layup to give L.A. a one point lead with half a second to go. After Westbrook’s heave at the buzzer fell short, the last sounds of the Thunder’s season were from an arena full of fans that remained on their feet long after the score went final.
Fast forward to the trade deadline on February 24. The Thunder pulled off one of the more unexpected moves, acquiring Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson from the Celtics for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic. Few thought the Celtics would part with the force in the middle that helped the team win a title in ’08, and who many thought could’ve helped win Game 7 last season after the Lakers pulled down 23 offensive rebounds en route to their 16th championship.
We will never know if Perkins would’ve been the difference maker in Game 7 had he not injured his knee in Game 6, just like we will never know if one box out on Gasol could’ve changed the outcome of the series.
“With Perk, he does bring some toughness and experience we need,” says Thunder coach Scott Brooks, “Just going into the season, we talked about just focusing on the little things, ‘cause the little things, they add up to big things like it was in that Game 6. We could’ve did the little things and box out, we could’ve made it a Game 7. But that’s experience, we’re gonna have to learn from it and move on and get better from it.”
Brooks adds, “One of the things Perk will do, he will anchor our defense and he will initiate our offense. Hopefully, he gets a ton of rebounds and kicks out but we still have to run in transition. We have some athletic wing players and dynamic scorers. We have to take advantage of that. We can’t all of a sudden become a half-court, grind it out team. You have to do that occasionally and we’re gaining experience, we’re getting better at that.”
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook brought some championship experience of their own back to the Thunder as the two are coming off a gold medal with USA Basketball. Durant, who made history as the NBA’s youngest scoring champion last season, not only fuels the team with his ability to score but also with his versatility on both ends of the court.
“We got some interesting matchups when KD’s the four,” says Brooks, “That allows us to really spread the floor and teams have some tough decisions to make—do they stay with their traditional lineup or do they go small, cause KD can guard two, threes and fours and occasionally he can guard fives.”
Durant is currently on pace to lead the NBA in scoring for a second straight season while Westbrook has fearlessly expanded upon his own role as a go-to scorer and playmaker.
“We’re still a work in progress,” says Brooks, “we’re still not where we need to be and where we want to be. All of our players have to continue to improve. Russell, Kevin, you know they made the All-Star team this year, but they have to continue to get better and lead our team to where we want to get to. We want to win a championship like every team in this league wants to win a championship but we know that’s gonna take a lot of work and we can’t afford to skip any steps along the way.”
The Thunder have not skipped any steps, but at times it looks like they are running up the stairs. It is odd to see a young team function as such a seamless sum of parts, but the Thunder always seem to have the right complement of pieces and attitudes to carry them forward. Executive VP & GM Sam Presti, along with the front office, deserves a great deal of credit for assembling the roster, as the quick extension given to Perkins is representative of the team’s deliberate approach to the building process. By signing Perkins to an extension before he was medically cleared to make his OKC debut, the Thunder showed a commitment to their new center as part of the long term plan.
Perkins went from the Celtics, who had a distinct chemistry of their own, to the tight knit Thunder. Asked about the transition, he says, “I think I fit in already just being around.”
On what he can offer, Perkins says, “Just bring a defensive presence in the middle. Obviously, they’re already a good team so I’m just trying to be a positive to the team, just helping in every way that I can. Basically bringing the same thing that I brought to the Celtics so I’m just trying to come in and do the same thing; hopefully a couple of leadership skills that I learned, that I picked up, so good habits just to carry over.”
Perkins considers the teammates he played with in Boston just as important as the experience of winning a title. “Just being around future Hall of Famers, learning a lot from Doc, it just carries over. I learned a lot while I was there so you know, just try to install it, but it’s a new look, new organization for me, so I don’t want to put in too much. I kind of like to show better than talking a lot,” he says.
Asked about his perception of Perkins before the trade, Durant says, “I didn’t like him, I didn’t like him of course. He’s a guy—cause I didn’t really know him as a person—but on the floor, you see he plays with a lot of passion, he plays for his teammates and he has no hidden agendas and he plays to win. That’s the type of teammate you love. I always said he was a great defensive player and somebody that I would love to have on our team, but I thought that was so farfetched that we wouldn’t be able to get him. But we did and he’s happy he’s here, that’s the best thing. He’s expressed how much he loves being here and he’s a great teammate off the floor, I love being around him already.”
When asked about the adjustment process for the new additions, Durant says, “The best thing about this trade is that we got veteran guys that learn on the fly, that learn quickly. Nazr [Mohammed] been with so many teams, Perk played on a championship team, Nate played on a team that went to the Finals so they learn sets quickly and they learn defensive schemes quickly and I think that’s the best part about it. So we just gotta keep pushing and try to help them out as much as we can.”
With a team built for the future and the ability to win now, OKC shows young never looked so promising. A taste of postseason experience—and the satisfaction of a world championship for KD and Westbrook—mean getting to the Playoffs will no longer be good enough.
“In this League, it doesn’t wait for you,” says Brooks about the team’s need to quickly incorporate the new pieces.
This year, OKC has been a part of the chase from the start. No slowing down now.