They have scoring and speed, dedication and discipline. Perhaps the only thing that separated the Thunder from the elite in the West this season was the lack of a bruising big man to go elbow-to-elbow with Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. That hole has been filled, however, with Kendrick Perkins, who was acquired from the Celtics at the trade deadline with Nate Robinson for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic.
The 6'10", 280-pound Perkins—who finally made his Oklahoma City debut on March 14 after sitting out nine games with a sprained left knee—fortifies multiple areas, most significantly post defense. In the Lakers' first-round victory last year Gasol (18.0 points, 12.2 rebounds) and Bynum (12.0, 9.0) shredded the Thunder, which was giving up 40.9 points per game in the paint through Sunday, 24th in the league. Perkins and defensive-minded power forward Serge Ibaka, who slid into Green's starting spot, will protect the post, and not having to constantly double-team should improve a three-point defense that ranked 15th (36.2%) in the NBA at week's end. "They complement each other well," says a Western Conference scout. "Ibaka is an athletic shot blocker, while Perkins is a physical enforcer." It's working well so far: In three games with Perkins before Sunday's loss to the Raptors, which snapped a six-game winning streak, the Thunder held all three of their opponents under 90 points and 45% shooting.
Perkins also brings a swagger that comes from three years of deep playoff runs. When Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks asked his Boston counterpart, Doc Rivers, about Perkins, Rivers told him that Perkins "doesn't like other NBA players." At his introductory press conference Perkins was asked what he didn't like about Gasol. His response: "Everything." In last week's win over the Heat, Perkins chewed out Ibaka for not drilling Miami's Erick Dampier when Dampier got free for a layup. Says Brooks, "I like when our guys play with a chip on their shoulders, and he has it all the time."
The Thunder will have to replace Green's production (15.2 points per game), but Perkins's stiff screens will create space for shooters. "I don't want one guy to feel like he has to score six or seven more points a game," says Brooks. "If everyone scores one basket more, we're back where we need to be."
Perkins isn't just a short-term fix. Five days after the trade—before he had even played a game for the team—Oklahoma City signed him to a four-year, $35 million extension. At 26, Perkins is the elder statesman of the second-youngest starting five in the league, with Ibaka (21), forward Kevin Durant (22), shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha (26) and point guard Russell Westbrook (22). And they all work. Hard. Shortly after the deal, the team got in at 2:30 a.m. following a road game. Perkins arrived at the practice facility a short time later to get treatment on his knee. To his surprise, Durant and Westbrook were already there. "We have a team full of workers," says Brooks. "Perk is really going to fit in."
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On Philadelphia, which had gone 33--21 through Sunday after starting 3--13: They are playing great defense. [The Sixers allowed 101.8 points per game in their first 16 games, 96.1 since.] They don't allow a lot of dribble penetration, and they rebound at all five positions. Their transition offense has always been good, but now they are using Andre Iguodala as a point forward in the half-court. He doesn't feel like he has to score, and he facilitates the offense really well. [Coach] Doug Collins has these guys in the right roles. Thaddeus Young was never a three; now he's coming off the bench as an undersized four and creating mismatches. And Lou Williams is playing more at the two, which takes advantage of his scoring.
ROB CARR/GETTY IMAGES (PERKINS)
KED'S STUFF In his Thunder debut, a win over the Wizards, Perkins played good D and had nine boards in 20 minutes.
AL TIELEMANS (IGUODOLA)