OKLAHOMA CITY - While the Thunder’s website was selling “Beat the Heat’’ T-shirts before Miami dispatched Boston in Game 7, there was at least one Celtics fan in Oklahoma City, one burly, scowling fan cheering for Doc Rivers’s squad.
“I kinda was [rooting for the Celtics],’’ Kendrick Perkins said with a big smile. “I wanted to play them, I ain’t going to lie, but hey, it didn’t happen.’’
Perkins is playing in his third NBA Finals in five years, this time as a member of the Thunder, a sight Celtics fans still lament after the controversial February 2011 trade of the team’s enforcer and fan favorite. The Celtics haven’t had a productive center since Perkins left, though Kevin Garnett was effective after being moved there following the All-Star break this season.
While his presence is sorely missed in Boston, he quickly embraced his new surroundings in Oklahoma City. He signed the contract extension he was seeking from the Celtics, committing to a city a short distance from his native Beaumont, Texas.
And his role immediately changed from youngster among the wily Big Three to the voice of reason and experience on a talented but youthful Thunder club.
“It’s a lot different,’’ he said when asked to compare his runs to the Finals with the Celtics and Thunder. “You got guys that was on their way out, so you say, and [here] you’re playing with guys who haven’t even hit their prime yet, just young, raw talent [who are] out there wanting to win and competing, who are trying get their name out there, who are trying to hang a banner for this new fired-up Oklahoma City. That’s the difference.
“Back then I was playing in the Finals [with the Celtics] when you had so much tradition with the Lakers and Celtics and now, the team is trying to establish themselves and put a mark on how this franchise is going to be for years to come.’’
The Thunder are led by brilliant three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, the 23-year-old, 6-foot-10-inch forward with shooting-guard skills. And by Russell Westbrook, a world-class speedster disguised as a point guard. James Harden, 22, has become one of the league’s top scorers off the bench and won the Sixth Man of the Year award in just his third season.
Perkins’s primary responsibilities are defense and rebounding. While the Thunder were immensely talented before Perkins arrived, they were a bunch of nice guys. Durant was a competitor but not intimidator while Westbrook was little more than a trash talker.
Perkins gives the Thunder an enforcer. He still picks up technicals with stunning regularity and offers his customary frown to opponents and officials, but his presence has aided the development of the younger core, including shot-blocking center Serge Ibaka.
“Perk, it’s great to play with him,’’ Ibaka said. “He’s kind of crazy. He’s funny. I like his crazy because when he does his crazy it’s to help you, help your team and help his teammates. He wants to win, and that’s why sometimes he does crazy things.’’
When Perkins arrived in Oklahoma City, he found that Durant, Westbrook, and the rest of the Thunder were asking him similar questions about life in the NBA and the idiosyncrasies of the game that Perkins himself used to ask Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. He liked that Oklahoma City’s superstars were humble enough to admit they needed guidance.
“It feels good for the guys to come and ask you different questions, what they need to do and you know they listen, also,’’ he said. “It’s always a plus. You’re just watching guys grow up so quick that I really don’t have to say too much. It’s just these guys over here, they want to win and that’s a good thing. [They’re] not bored with winning, [they] don’t get caught up in themselves, caught up hearing the hype or reading newspaper articles, they want to keep getting better.’’
While Perkins and the Thunder fell short to the eventual champion Mavericks in last year’s playoffs, the big man was essentially playing on one leg, still recovering from the torn left anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in Game 6 of the 2010 Finals, an injury that may have cost the Celtics title No. 18.
What’s more, the aftereffects carried to this season, even though Perkins reported to camp in the best condition of his career.
“About 20 months, I actually felt back to myself,’’ he said. “I was in shape but actually when you have that pep in your step, it took about 20 months. That’s nearly two years. I actually didn’t start feeling good until about March of this year. And it felt great to be myself again.’’
Perkins said he was saddened by Boston’s Game 7 loss in Miami, when each of the Big Three embraced Rivers to perhaps signal the end of the era. Perkins said that maybe it’s time.
“I really don’t know how many runs they can actually make,’’ he said. “Guys getting older. I know one thing about it, if they come together and say, ‘hey we’re going to make another run,’ then that’s what it is. They’re going to believe that and stick by it and work hard at it.’’