Kendrick Perkins soothes egos, resolves issues in Thunder locker room

Adrian Wojnarowski
Yahoo Sports

NEW YORK – For Kendrick Perkins, the telephone calls from frustrated Oklahoma City Thunder teammates come with a far greater frequency than passes into the post. Sometimes, this is the blessing and the curse of playing with the greatness of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. In victory and defeat, the ball belongs to the NBA's two best 20-something scorers and everyone else is left to sort through the scraps of shots.

"I get phone calls at all hours of the night from different teammates," Perkins told Yahoo! Sports. "And I've got to tell them: OK, you didn't get yours tonight but…

"So OK, take Serge [Ibaka]. I'll tell him, "OK man, you got seven points tonight, then you need to go get eight blocks. Some nights it's not going to be your night, where you can touch the ball. It's like that on this team, especially when you've got scorers like Russ, K.D. and Kevin Martin leading the league in scoring."

Twenty-four hours before Perkins made an immense block on the Brooklyn Nets' Deron Williams in the final minute of the Thunder's 117-111 victory at Barclays Center, Perkins gave a knowing nod and shrugged. "The game ends, you go home, take an hour break and then I know it's mentoring time.

"Guys are gonna call."

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Within the Thunder organization, they understand Perkins' value extends far beyond the modest statistics. These Thunder are undergoing the natural evolution of a rising power, where shots and minutes are rubbing egos the wrong way. Perkins plays the part of traffic cop, counseling in ways significant and slight.

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Kendrick Perkins, far right, has tried to help Serge Ibaka, left, understand his role. (AP)

After Thunder coach Scott Brooks substituted Ibaka out of Saturday night's victory over New Orleans, Ibaka snapped at Brooks upon returning to the bench, sources told Yahoo! Sports. "Just emotional," Ibaka said Wednesday night, and there was a lot of truth to it. Ibaka cares deeply and wants to be an even more significant part of these Thunder with James Harden now gone.

Nevertheless, there were a couple of conversations with Ibaka and his coach on the off days in New York this week, and, as always, Perkins worked Ibaka over, too. Ibaka played brilliantly on Wednesday night: 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks. These things happen every day, everywhere in the league. As one Thunder official said, "It's how you manage it."

For the front office, coaching staff and locker-room elders, this season has been a challenge in managing the frustrations of developing stars (Ibaka) and developing players (Eric Maynor) who want more shots, more minutes, more of everything. Perhaps never before has it been such a balancing act for the organization, and that's where Perkins plays such an important part.

Perkins is one of the true tough guys in the NBA, one of the NBA's best defenders of the post and defenders of professionalism. He learned under Kevin Garnett in Boston, and will quote K.G. – will tell you stories of his unselfishness, his team building – for hours if you permit him. He'll tell these Thunder about the way Garnett sacrificed his scoring when united with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, about how he made sure everyone else fed themselves first.

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When Perkins partially tore his groin late last season, the prospect of sitting out the Thunder's playoff run never occurred to him. He did the most professional thing of all: He never disclosed the severity of the injury, never revealed the truth to spare himself the criticism that came about how sluggishly he moved, how limited he had become. Perkins is an original, one of the last of the true tough guys in the sport.

Ask him about playing those months in excruciating pain, and he shrugs and grumbles and says, "That groin injury, it was definitely… Ah, I don't like to make excuses, but … that groin injury was definitely a pain in the ass."

For everyone else suggesting these Thunder will go to the Finals for years to come, that this young core will go on for years and years, Perkins simply says, "I was there when we lost 18 in a row in Boston. I'll never take this for granted."

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Perkins frequently shares the lessons he learned playing next to Kevin Garnett in Boston. (Getty Images)

For everyone believing that the most significant friction had developed between Durant and Westbrook, that relationship has fortified itself this season. Much of that has to do with the way Westbrook has grown, matured and pushed himself into a broader playmaking role. He's turned into a true attacking guard on defense, too. All over the floor, Westbrook has blossomed into a relentless ballhawk. He's a nightmare for everyone now.

And maybe most of all, Perkins sees the transformation of his disposition.

"His communication skills toward everybody have been off the charts," Perkins said. "We used to call Russ, 'Trey,' as in Russell Westbrook III. He would act like a little Trey, where he would go off and no one could talk to him last year. It happened a few times. But there's been none of that this year. He's been a great leader."

And through it all, Westbrook and Durant will still need Perkins to be a buffer for them. This is a committed roster, an organization that has created a culture of accountability inside and outside the locker room. From the front office of Sam Presti and Troy Weaver, to coaching of Brooks, this is a franchise that's been unblinking with confronting its issues. They happen everywhere. With success, with talent, there come desires unmet, expectations unfulfilled. Those are everyday issues for the Thunder now.

Long after the game ends, the phone rings for Kendrick Perkins and his message is unwavering: Get over yourself and get to work on whatever is necessary to win basketball games. That's the program here, that's the value of leadership that transcends all those statistics, all those metrics, all those things that'll never measure how a franchise keeps itself together.

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