Posted May 18 2010 3:01PM
ORLANDO -- For Kendrick Perkins, the road through the 2010 NBA playoffs has been just another long highway of hurt.
After helping the Boston Celtics send the equivalent of an AARP card to Miami's Jermaine O'Neal in the first round, Perkins found himself pounding and getting pounded by Cleveland's Shaquille O'Neal for six grueling games.
Now the Boston center faces as many as seven games against Superman II, Orlando's Dwight Howard, with Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals Tuesday night at Amway Arena. Should things go well enough, often enough for Perkins and his team, his prize for all this might be at least four games against those purple-and-gold skyscrapers in Los Angeles.
Perkins says his second favorite sport is football (he's from Texas, after all), but with the way he plays, it seems he sometimes flips the order with basketball. On a team known for its skill positions (point guard Rajon Rondo as quarterback, say, and Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen as tailbacks and wide receivers), the 6-foot-10, 278-pound Perkins is all nose tackle.
"I look forward to the physical games," Perkins said Monday. "I have problems when I have to play against the quicker guys. The [Amar'e] Stoudemires, the Pau Gasols who like to face up. I like the physical matchups."
Liking them is the first step toward winning them, which is what Perkins has done through these playoffs. Doing it now is particularly vital because the Magic's system is built on its opponents' need to double-team Howard in the low post. Doing so sets off a chain reaction of kick-outs and frantic defense as the ball zips around the perimeter to open 3-point shooters.
By coping with Howard 1-on-1, Perkins stops that chaos before it begins. The marksmen aren't left open to shoot or sometimes even to catch the ball. (Orlando had 18 turnovers Sunday in Game 1.) Thus, Celtics order is maintained.
Coach Doc Rivers said, reflexively or by gambling, the Celtics double-teamed Howard just three times in Boston's Game 1 victory. The Celtics were scored on each time.
"All Perk does is go out and guard his own guy as well as anybody in the league," Rivers said. "He gets blocked shots, but not a lot. But he shuts down the guy he's guarding, and that's all we ask him. If you want to say what makes us a good defensive team, it's that -- we rarely have to double-team a big."
The banging that Perkins takes and dishes is as close as the NBA gets to helmet-on-helmet. Padding is minimal, so bruising is, well, maximal. "Where he ends up is on the training table," Rivers said. "That's where he was last night and this morning, and that's where he'll probably be throughout.
"Dwight is strong and active and athletic. Shaq's strong and just a brute. Perk took some hits in that [Cleveland] series that a lot of us wouldn't have stood up to. He's going to take some in this one as well."
Said Perkins: "It's about the same ... Dwight's quicker and more athletic. You can get hurt against either one of them. They both play physical. But I feel it though. Everywhere. I feel it, you better believe that."
Perkins smiled as he said that.
It wasn't that long ago that the 25-year-old drafted with the 27th pick in 2003 was taking as many hits from Celtics fans as from rivals. The investment in him was modest -- Boston acquired his rights in a Draft-day swap with Memphis -- but the Celtics' hopes for him were not. Perkins was slow getting going, averaging 2.2, 2.5, 5.2 and 4.5 points per game in his first four seasons. His rebounds: 1.4, 2.9, 5.9, 5.2.
In the summer of 2007, president Danny Ainge transformed the team, adding Garnett and Allen with win-now moves. Perkins was one of the holdovers left standing and the team needed him, as a player, to grow up fast. He met that challenge, averaging 6.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.46 blocked shots, embracing the defensive makeover instigated by Garnett and helping them all to the 2008 title.
Perkins' role, his importance, has grown since with little acclaim. He averaged 10.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.69 blocks this season but got neglected by the coaches in voting for the league's All-Defensive teams, finishing with four points to Howard's 57.
Asked if he sometimes feels like Boston's fifth wheel, deprived of attention after the Big Three and Rondo, Perkins said: "Nope. I actually like it. I'm a guy who, I dunno, it's cool to have it, but I don't really press or nothing like that to get attention. I just do my work.
"Danny told me something a long time ago: 'As long as your teammates are fans of yours, your coaches are fans of yours and the organization is fans of yours, you really don't need no other fans.' "
He'll make few in Orlando. In Game 1, Perkins banged relentlessly into Howard, moving him off his preferred spots near the paint, pushing him outside his comfortable range. He negated Howard's quickness and ability to create space vertically by giving him none horizontally, constantly leaning. He made Howard's limited offensive game a topic again at the worst possible time. So forget popularity -- Perkins will settle for a little grudging respect.
"I'm going to have the same outcome against him if I play his game," Howard said after Monday's practice. "His game is to be physical and try to fight me. But for me, it's not [smart] to try to fight him to score. There's other ways around it."
Perkins had help off the bench from Rasheed Wallace and Glen Davis, with Rivers happy to deploy their 18 fouls to break Howard's rhythm and send him on some foul-line adventures. While Wallace delighted in tricky tactics and yammering against the Magic center, Perkins kept it all straight-up.
"You've got to hit him first, hit him second -- you've just got to hit him," Perkins said. "He's a physical guy. I think you try to limit his dunks. Any time he has a chance to get a dunk, you want to wrap him up, send him to the foul line. When he gets a dunk, he gets going, that's my opinion. He can make a jump hook, you don't really feel it.
"You can't come into the game like, 'I'm playing Dwight, I'm playing Superman.' You've got to come into the game like, 'We're going to get dirty. It's now or never. I'm going to put my nose into the fight.' "
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