OKLAHOMA CITY – Kendrick Perkins(notes) smiled. This much is verifiable from eyewitness accounts. The sight of little Nate Robinson(notes) throwing in a 3-pointer was enough to melt even the meanest scowl in the NBA, if only for a moment.
But the 3-pointers kept flying, the Oklahoma City Thunder kept laughing, the fans continued to howl and, well, this was about when Perkins vowed to use all this youthful exuberance as one more teaching point. The Thunder had already run the Memphis Grizzlies out of the gym, turning a tense Game 5 into an eventual 99-72 rout. The benches had emptied. The game was all but over. And, still, the Thunder continued to cheer every shot.
“We have to end the game with better class than that,” Perkins would later say after the Thunder’s locker room had nearly emptied. “That’s too disrespectful in my eyes. That’s not what the Thunder are about. … I think we were too flashy.”
Too flashy. As NBA sins go, this was the equivalent of a 6-year-old disobeying his parents by jumping on the family’s new couch. If the Grizzlies were upset by the Thunder’s conduct, they didn’t complain publicly.
But that doesn’t matter to Perkins. Three reporters and one camera crew greeted him after he dressed late Wednesday. No one asked about the end-of-game antics. No one thought to ask. Perkins raised the issue on his own because he had one more lesson to impart to his young teammates:
“We haven’t done nothin’.”
Perkins will tell the Thunder the same when they gather Thursday afternoon to fly to Memphis. They hold a 3-2 lead over the Grizzlies, and Perk has been through enough of these battles to know how quickly a series can change. Those same exhausted, lifeless Grizzlies in Game 5 can get their legs back as soon as they step in front of their own fans for Friday’s Game 6.
“Getting past the second round is not one of our goals anyway,” Perkins said. “It’s just a … stepping point.”
Oklahoma City officials will likely smile upon hearing that. These are the reasons they not only traded for Perkins but gave him a four-year, $35 million extension before he even played a game for them. On a night when the Thunder showed some of their immaturity, Perkins was working overtime to keep them grounded.
No one who knows him is surprised. Perk is 26 going on 76. He’s Clint Eastwood in “Gran Torino” – the old man sitting on the front porch, glaring at the neighbor kids every time they wander too close to his flower bed, the aging patriarch who polices the block and protects his own.
“You got a lot of young guys here,” Robinson said. “They live life on the edge. Perk balances them out.”
Robinson spent the last half of last season and the first half of this one with Perkins in Boston. He knows how much Perkins meant to those Celtics, and Wednesday night provided more evidence. Minutes after the Celtics’ season collapsed at the feet of LeBron James(notes) and the Miami Heat, Perkins took the court with the Thunder to bump and frustrate Zach Randolph(notes).
After spending the previous eight months telling everyone they would have beaten the Los Angeles Lakers for last season’s NBA title had Perkins not been hurt in Game 6, the Celtics crunched their numbers and decided they could live without their center – or at least at the cost of what it would take to re-sign him. The Celtics have spent the weeks since trying to convince everyone why they traded Perkins. Maybe they’re still trying to convince themselves.
There are some people in Boston – a few of whom are in the Celtics’ locker room – who thought the Celtics lost some of their soul when Perkins left. Losing to the Heat in five games won’t quiet the doubters.
“I was wishing we could both end up in the Finals and meet up," Perkins said, "or something crazy like that. … I hated to see them go down like this.”
He’s too close to too many of his old teammates to take any satisfaction from their exit from the playoffs. But he also knows this: The Thunder have quickly embraced all his rough edges in the same way the Celtics appreciated them.
The Thunder don’t care about Perkins’ numbers, and that’s a good thing considering they aren’t much. He totaled five points, three rebounds, three turnovers and three fouls in 23 minutes in Game 5. But he also set screens to free Russell Westbrook(notes) and Kevin Durant(notes), and was one of four big men used to wear down Randolph, who left the court with just nine points. This was the kind of game in which Perkins thrives: ugly, gritty, physical.
The Thunder don’t lack for punch. The addition of Perkins and subtraction of Jeff Green(notes) has better organized their roster, freeing Serge Ibaka(notes) to play power forward and creating more minutes and shots for James Harden(notes). The Thunder think Perkins’ statistical production also will improve as his body strengthens. He’s still not completely recovered from injuries to both knees.
Until then, the Thunder are happy with everything else he provides. After Oklahoma City lost the opener of this series, it was Perkins who persuaded Durant to gather the team at his house the following night and address any lingering issues. And with Westbrook weathering criticism whenever his shot volume surpasses that of Durant, Perkins has continued to work to steady the team.
“It’s kind of hard to get guys to buy into roles at a young age because … you got goals as an individual, whether it’s to make the All-Star Game or whatever it may be,” Perkins said.
“I think we played tonight with no agendas.”
Perkins walked out of the locker room late Wednesday, vowing to teach these young Thunder one more lesson: If you want to become a champion, start acting like one. Stay humble, stay hungry.
They’ll fly to Memphis in need of one victory to finish these Grizzlies and reach the Western Conference finals. Perk will remind them. They haven’t done anything yet.