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

Tacko Fall’s agent confident if Celtics don’t keep him on roster another team will

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Tacko Fall was arguably the most popular player at Las Vegas Summer League (especially since Zion Williamson only played nine minutes). Fans chanted for him to get in games and then chanted “M-V-P” once he was in. Fall averaged 7.2 points a game on 77 percent shooting at Summer League and every play he made became a viral highlight.

But that was Summer League.

Now things are getting real and Fall is trying to make the Celtics’ roster. Fall signed an Exhibit 10 contract with the Celtics, which is essentially a training camp invite.

It’s a longshot Fall makes the Celtics’ regular season roster for two reasons. First, Fall needs a lot more development to be NBA ready, both physically and in terms of understanding and reacting to the game and how fast it moves. That was evident in Las Vegas. Second, the Celtics have Enes Kanter starting at center with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams behind him, it’s unlikely they keep a fourth traditional center on the roster. Both of Boston’s two-way contracts are already filled.

If the Celtics cut Fall and he signs with Boston’s G-League affiliate the Maine Red Claws, Fall gets a $50,000 bonus.

However, Fall’s agent Justin Haynes says if Boston cuts Fall he believes another team will sign him, something Haynes told Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe.

“If the Celtics release him, I don’t think he goes unclaimed,” said Haynes, Fall’s agent. “I think somebody will take a shot on him because he’s done enough to show he can find a place in the NBA. I’m really hopeful that it’s Boston. I hope they find a way, and they do have a vision for him.”

I could see another team giving Fall one of their two-way contracts, but he needs a lot more development and time on the court. He needs time in the G-League. Maybe a team gives him a roster spot and develops him there, but that seems unlikely. Fall has the potential to be an NBA player, but it’s going to take a lot of work for him to get there.

Work that this year likely will take place in the G-League.

Gregg Popovich shows off some handles, and a midrange game (VIDEO)

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This is where you insert your “if one more player drops from USA Basketball” joke…

Team USA has flown to Australia for a series of FIBA World Cup tuneup games — two against Australia, one against Canada — and they are practicing there for a few days prior to those games. At one of those practices, USA (and Spurs) coach Gregg Popovich showed off a little behind-the-back dribble and midrange game, and Donovan Mitchell caught it on his camera and posted it.

Just as a reminder, Pop did play. Never in the NBA, but he was one of the last cuts of the 1972 USA Olympic team.

That said, I think the coaching gig worked out pretty well for him.

Team USA will play Australia on Aug. 22 and 24, then face Canada on Aug. 26. From there the USA flies to China where its first game is Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

Atlanta Hawks promote, extend contract of GM Travis Schlenk

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Trae Young. John Collins. Kevin Huerter. De’Andre Hunter. Cam Reddish.

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly built one of the more intriguing young teams in the NBA the past couple of years, trading up and down in the draft to compile a young roster with a lot of potential. They moved on from Mike Budenholzer (he landed on his feet just fine, thanks) and brought in player development specialist in Llyod Pierce as coach. All that has yet to translate to a lot of wins, but it will — the trajectory of the Hawks is going to take off like a rocket.

Travis Schlenk, the Hawks general manager and architect of all of it, earned the contract extension and new title he was given, something announced by the team on Monday. Schlenk is now Atlanta’s President of Basketball Operations and General Manager.

“We are extremely pleased with the direction that Travis and our entire basketball operations team has us heading as a franchise. He has used the draft to build an impressive young core, hired one of the NBA’s top young coaches in Lloyd Pierce and positioned us to have the cap space, draft picks and financial flexibility needed to have long-term success in the NBA,” Hawks Principal Owner Tony Ressler said in a statement announcing the move.

Schlenk had been an assistant GM in Golden State before coming to Atlanta, and also had spent time in the Miami and Orlando organizations. He’s been in the NBA front office game for a couple of decades.

This is a smart decision by the Hawks. When things are going well, when you have good people in place, keep them there and get ownership out of the way. Let the basketball people do their jobs. Atlanta has figured that out.

The Hawks won 24 games during Schlenk’s first year and 29 last season, but expect that number to jump as the young talent on this roster continues to mature and get added to.

NBA’s Steph Curry helps Howard U. start Division I golf team

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WASHINGTON (AP) Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry is helping Howard University launch a Division I golf program.

The Golden State Warriors star guard and the school announced the six-year partnership Monday.

The specifics of his contribution were not disclosed.

Howard officials say they plan to have women’s and men’s golf teams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The school had a Division II golf program in the past, along with intercollegiate and intramural club teams.

The 31-year-old Curry, who has won three NBA championships with the Warriors, says he decided to get involved after meeting a Howard student who had been trying to get the university to have a golf team.

Curry says “it’s tough” to hear about students “who have the talent but don’t have a fair shot at the game.”