LOS ANGELES – From Kevin Durant(notes) to coach Scott Brooks to general manager Sam Presti, the Oklahoma City Thunder all had one request of Kendrick Perkins(notes): Be yourself. They'd plucked him off the Boston Celtics' roster in the middle of another championship chase, separated him from the only NBA team he'd ever known. And in those first few days when Perkins wasn't sure what to make of everything, the Thunder gave him the best assurance they could.
We don't want you for what you can become, they said. We want you for what you already are: big and bold, tough as granite, edges rough and sharp.
And so when someone stuck a recorder in front of Perk a few weeks ago and asked what he thought of the Los Angeles Lakers, he answered not as the Thunder would, but as only a born-and-bred Celtic could. The Lakers are "yesterday's news," he said. Phil Jackson's arrogant. Pau Gasol's(notes) soft.
"That was my opinion from the past battles that we had in the playoffs," Perkins said. "It wasn't nothing I said that was out of character or too crazy. I just spoke my mind.
"The thing is … you just got to back it up."
Perkins did that, too. He was speaking in his slow East Texas drawl late Sunday, sitting in front of his locker after helping deliver a 120-106 victory over the Lakers. He'd gone toe-to-toe with Kobe Bryant(notes), wrapping him up in a screen then shoving him away after Bryant jawed at him. He'd pushed Andrew Bynum(notes) then stood his ground after Bynum threw the ball into his chest. He'd nearly caught Ron Artest(notes) with a flailing elbow after Artest had almost done the same to him.
This was new territory for the Thunder. Their last victory over the Lakers at Staples Center came more than five years ago, back when the franchise still resided in Seattle and Durant was playing out his senior season in high school. They lost all three games in L.A. in last season's first-round series with the Lakers. The series' finale was a haunting Game 6 that came when Gasol put back Kobe's missed shot with a half-second left after the Thunder failed to box him out. Gasol and Bynum overwhelmed Oklahoma City's frontline for much of that series. Perkins is far less inclined to let that happen again.
"We have kind of a different swagger about ourselves," he said.
The Lakers have slowed their own strut after losing five straight games for the first time in four years. Unlike their previous four games, they played hard on this night, which is why Sunday revealed more about how far the Thunder have come than how far the champs have dropped. The Lakers could lose to the San Antonio Spurs and Sacramento Kings this week, slip to the Western Conference's fourth seed, enter the playoffs on a staggering seven-game slide … and you'd still have a hard time finding a scout who wouldn't pick them as favorites to return to the Finals. The Thunder?
They're still young and full of energy. They're just not as cute and cuddly as before.
The Thunder won admirers across the league last season after pushing the Lakers to six games in the first round of the playoffs. Durant led the NBA in scoring. Russell Westbrook(notes) quickly developed into one of the best young point guards. Oklahoma City's stars were humble and likeable, a team that even rival fans could appreciate.
The future belonged to the Thunder, at least as soon as the Lakers loosened their grip on the present.
The addition of Perkins and Nazr Mohammed(notes) in a pair of deadline-day trades now has the potential to accelerate Oklahoma City's growth. Perkins has given the Thunder the interior defensive presence they lacked. The trade also organized their roster. With Jeff Green(notes) moving to Boston, dynamic young forward Serge Ibaka(notes) inherited Green's starting job and minutes. James Harden(notes) also saw his playing time and shots increase with Green's departure. Not only has the Thunder's defense noticeably improved since the trade, so has their 3-point shooting.
The Thunder still take too many bad shots and sometimes play too fast for too long. Their youthful exuberance could ultimately lead to their undoing in the playoffs. But they also have an edge to them that wasn't there a year ago, and Perkins deserves credit for that.
"He brings toughness, he brings physical play and he doesn't like his opponent," Brooks said. "It's old-school basketball. He doesn't like who he plays against, and I like that mentality."
In just 15 games with Oklahoma City, Perkins has already picked up seven technicals, including one he received against the Lakers. He twice scuffled with Denver Nuggets center Nene in a pair of recent games, and his imprint on the Thunder's victory over the Lakers was noticeable in spite of his modest stat line: two points, five rebounds, two assists, one block.
Perkins sets the screens to free Oklahoma City's shooters. Defensively, he's almost always in the right place. And when his teammates aren't, he's barking at them. Like Thabo Sefolosha(notes), Nick Collison(notes) and Mohammed, Perkins can impact a game without needing the ball in his hands – an invaluable resource for a team that already has two All-Star scorers.
"I've always said he's the best low-post defender in the league," Bryant said.
The Celtics thought the same. They lost Perkins to a devastating knee injury early in Game 6 of last season's Finals and have insisted ever since they would have beaten the Lakers for the championship had he not been hurt. Now they may forever regret trading him. Perkins' absence isn't the only problem troubling the Celtics as they careen toward the playoffs, but it's clear they miss the defense and toughness he provided just as much as the Thunder have welcomed it.
Durant began the season believing the Thunder could contend. Perkins, he said, "just adds another level." That was evident for one night, at least. In the game's final minutes, it was the Lakers who looked too young, too inexperienced, surrendering turnover after turnover.
As they lined up along the lane for a free throw in the closing seconds, Kobe glared at Perkins and sniffed, "You happy with this?"
Perkins stared back. Yes, he told Bryant. We're happy. We're happy with every win, he said. Why shouldn't we be happy?
"Kobe being Kobe," Perkins said some 30 minutes after the game. He still wore a scowl as he sat in front of his locker. Maybe it's the old Celtic in him, but there's something about these Lakers he doesn't like.
Be yourself, the Thunder told Perkins. As if he knew any other way.