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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Perkins makes Thunder a credible threat in no time


MIAMI -- Kendrick Perkins is famous for his scowl, and for being Kevin Garnett's frontcourt sidekick in Boston. Imagine his delight when he arrived in Oklahoma City after a stunning deadline trade and heard that there's at least one page of the Thunder playbook that was stolen from Red Auerbach's.

No layups.

The Thunder's new enforcer was on full display Wednesday night, barking orders, scowling like someone stole his lunch money, and dishing out all six of his allotted fouls in an impressive 96-85 victory against the Heat. In his second game back from a knee injury, his second game in a pro uniform that wasn't green and white, Perkins made all of one basket and still had an impact on the game.

The addition of Kendrick Perkins has given the Thunder exactly what they were missing -- a backbone on defense. (AP)  
The addition of Kendrick Perkins has given the Thunder exactly what they were missing -- a backbone on defense. (AP)  
"Perk is a veteran; he knows what it takes," said Kevin Durant, who had 29 points in perhaps the Thunder's most important victory of the season. "He knew his role from the beginning."

His role is simple: Do for Oklahoma City's defense what Kevin Garnett did for Boston's -- without the bravado and tasteless jokes. In other words, be the backbone.

"One thing I learned about being a good defensive team is that your two big men have got to be on the same page at all times," Perkins said. "If you have two bigs who can guard a pick-and-roll or lock up the paint, that's what makes a defensive team."

Perkins' partner in crime is no longer Garnett, but Serge Ibaka, who has been able to slide back to his natural power forward position with Perkins' arrival. Ibaka had 12 rebounds, three blocks, two steals, and one earful from Perkins on Wednesday night.

He better get used to it.

On the play in question, there was a miscommunication between Perkins and Ibaka, and Erick Dampier got free for a layup under the basket. Perkins blasted him, using one of his six fouls and getting into it with Ibaka afterward.

"We have a rule: no layups," Perkins said. "So I had to take one for the team."

Funny, that's what Thunder GM Sam Presti did at the trade deadline. He saw a piece his team was missing and took it from the Celtics. Knowing they wouldn't be able to re-sign Perkins next summer no matter what the new labor rules wound up being, the Celtics took a calculated risk. They traded their 26-year-old, defensive-minded center to the West in the hope they'll never see him again. What it means for the Celtics is that they absolutely have to get something of consequence out of 39-year-old Shaquille O'Neal come playoff time.

What it means for the Thunder is that they're now a legitimate threat to win the way you have to win in the playoffs: with a well-orchestrated defensive style and an ornery 7-footer (or close to it) protecting the basket.

"Everybody that watches Perk play notices his toughness and physicality, and that's definitely huge for us," frontcourt philosopher Nick Collison said. "I think people don't realize how smart he is. He's a really smart basketball player defensively, really has a good feel for how to defend situations. He's probably the most vocal guy already on the defensive end, and we need more of that."

By Oklahoma City standards, the Perkins trade was a major move. Presti has built through the draft, stayed at or under the cap for three consecutive years, and has a team that will be over 50 wins again -- not to mention under budget. In a bigger market with higher revenues -- or at least, you know, a revenue-sharing system that didn't tilt the court in favor of the glamour cities -- Presti could have gone after free agents like David Lee or Carlos Boozer last summer. Once he had the big fish, he could've then gone over the cap to extend Durant and then done the same to lock up the rest of the young core: Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Ibaka.

That all sounds nice in fantasy basketball, or in a city like New York, Boston, Dallas, or L.A. But the way the NBA works now, that kind of approach wouldn't fly in Oklahoma.

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"There's a lot behind the scenes that people don't know about as far as paying guys and things like that," Durant said. "A player like Perk, they wouldn't just give away because they had to do something for their organization. But I'm glad we got him."

What the Thunder believe they've added in Perkins is another young player who fits their needs, system and culture. At 26, Perkins joins what is now the youngest starting lineup in the NBA at 23.4 years. It's a lot to ask of a team that young to take the next step in the progression -- which would be getting past the first round, where they lost to the Lakers last spring.

That's why trading for Perkins, and subsequently signing him to a lesser extension than Jeff Green would've commanded, wasn't a win-now move. With Presti and the Thunder, it is always about the future. But who knows? With one of the game's most explosive point guards in Westbrook, one of its most lethal scorers in Durant, a defense-first mentality, and now an anchor for that defense, "The sky's the limit for us," Perkins said.

"He's good for us because he brings a seriousness and business-like approach that we need because we're so young," Collison said. "I'm not a young guy, but I haven't been to the Finals or anything like that. So we don't have anybody other than Nazr [Mohammed] with that type of experience, so that's huge. He gets along with everybody, and he's a funny guy off the court. But on the court, he's all business."

It was a move that was about business and about the future. But with a grind-it-out, June-like victory against the Heat in March, you could see the possibilities. If it doesn't work out, Presti will have money to extend his other core players and $8 million in cap space next summer -- maybe more, maybe less depending on the new rules. But what if the Thunder, in all their efforts to avoid hitting a home run, just hit one by accident?

"We don't know what the future holds," Durant said.

But what if the future just arrived?

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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