Kendrick Perkins, after mounting criticism, establishing new niche with Thunder

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BOSTON – The terms of the Kendrick Perkins conundrum were never complicated.

He’s a well-respected leader whose on-court production increasingly failed to justify the starting role the Thunder gave him.

ESPN called him the NBA’s Least Valuable Player. Kevin Durant called him “one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”

Both assessments were accurate.

How Oklahoma City should reconcile the two side of Perkins was always the more complicated question.

Would reducing his playing time diminish his standing in the locker room? Would he continue to lead as a reserve? Could he?

Now, Perkins is making it easy on the Thunder.

Coming off the bench for the first time since being traded to Oklahoma City, Perkins is averaging 5.3 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 52.8 percent in 19.8 minutes per game. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but they – combined with his intangibles – make keeping him the rotation completely justifiable.

Perkins has reversed a four-year downturn in PER, dating back to his final full season with the Celtics:

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After starting his first 289 games with the Thunder, including the playoffs, Perkins performed well off the bench his first few games of the season. He grabbed eight and six rebounds his first two games, and then he had 17 points and five rebounds in a win over the Nuggets.

But a cold spell hit, and Perkins shot 1-for-9 in three straight losses.

“A couple of games, mentally I wasn’t into it,” Perkins said. “I wasn’t bringing the right mindset and my heart wasn’t in it. The last few games my heart’s been in it.”

What changed?

“Sometimes, you’ve just got to get a reality check,” Perkins said. “Sometimes, people that you love just got to put you in place and talk to you. And that’s all you need at times, just that one person to talk to you.”

Perkins has no shortage of people he can rely on when he faces a challenge – naming specifically his wife and former Celtics teammates Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett.

“KG is the one who will tell me the truth all the time,” Perkins said. “He’s going to tell me the truth whether I want to hear it or not.”

But none of those three had the first-hand experience to help Perkins with this latest slump while adjusting to coming off the bench.

Enter teammate Nick Collison, a backup most of his career.

“He was just telling me about the role I’m in coming off the bench,” Perkins said. “You just got to know that you got to come in and almost want to play perfect with a lot of energy. I didn’t really know you can’t ease into that.

“You just got to be a spark plug off the bench some kind of way.”

Though he said he’s not making any concerted effort to score more in the absence of Durant, Russell Westbrook and multiple other key players, Perkins has at least six points in three straight games – a feat he achieved only once all of last season.

So far, he’s delivering exactly what this team needs, and any worries about how sending him to the bench would affect Oklahoma City’s chemistry are being put to rest.

Not only is up-and-coming Steven Adams holding his own after becoming starting center, Perkins’ voice still carries weight. Even after a brief tiff with Reggie Jackson – who’s also trying to find his way in a changing environment – the guard spoke highly of Perkins.

“He’s just so embracing, so loving,” Jackson said. “He wants the best for everybody.

“He’ll run through a wall for you. If he feels you’re genuine, you’re a great teammate, there’s no ends Perk that will go to make sure, to make you feel wanted.”

Perkins, after the Thunder didn’t amnesty him this summer, must feel wanted, too. He’s even hearing MVP chants in his head.

These good feelings might not last. When rookie Mitch McGary returns from injury, he could usurp Perkins’ role. Even the returns of Durant and Perry Jones could eat into Perkins’ playing, because Collison has opened big-man minutes by playing out of position at small forward. There’s also a chance Perkins’ revival is a flash in the pan, unsustainable in a larger sample.

But, right now, Perkins is quietly succeeding on the court and loudly leading off it – a perfect recipe for Oklahoma City