By Chris Tomasson, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 19 2011 10:04AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Denver Nuggets have plenty of nicknames for each other. They're displayed on placards affixed above the lockers of each player on the road.
Center Nene is "Beast.''
It mostly fits for the 6-foot-11, 250-pound well-chiseled strong man. But two weeks ago Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins was looking more beastly at times.
In a 101-94 Thunder win April 5 at the Pepsi Center, the only home game Denver has lost out of the past 13, Perkins and Nene went face to face in the first half and had to be separated. They each received a technical, but it was Nene who didn't seem to be the same the rest of the game.
While Perkins finished with 14 rebounds, Nene had seven points and eight boards. Nene shot 3-of-10 that night, well under what would be an NBA-best 61.5 field-goal percentage for the regular season.
Three days later, Nene was much better at Oklahoma City. He had 18 points and nine rebounds, but Perkins seemingly again got under Nene's skin when he and Nene received double technicals for a skirmish midway through the fourth quarter of the Thunder's 104-89 win.
"I told (Nene) a few days ago, 'They can't guard you. Bottom line. The only thing they can do is try to frustrate you,''' Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin said of what he said to his long-time teammate prior to Sunday's Game 1 of a Western Conference playoff series against the Thunder. "When he came out (Sunday), he took it to heart.''
No, Denver didn't win Game 1, booting away a 13-point second-quarter lead and falling 107-103 at Oklahoma City Arena. But the play of Nene has to be encouraging for the Nuggets moving forward.
Nene didn't get caught up in any extra-curricular activity with the 6-foot-10, 280-pound Perkins, who has made it a specialty during his eight-year career frustrating other centers. Nene went about his business, and had 22 points and eight rebounds.
How the temperamental Nene starts games often is a good gauge of how he will look throughout the night. And Nene scoring 10 points in the first quarter, when the Nuggets seized a 33-24 lead, offered further indication of how important their big man can be.
"Yeah, it was very encouraging,'' Denver forward Al Harrington said of building off what Nene did Sunday. "Obviously, he's a big part of what we do offensively and the more we can get him going, get him comfortable, get him aggressive, obviously it makes us that more dangerous.
"I think Nene's nature is he doesn't shoot the ball a lot. Sometimes I don't think he gives himself a chance to have a great game because he's so unselfish. (Sunday), when we came out, he had a chip on his shoulder and we all saw that.''
Nene apparently wanted to make a statement against Perkins, and was able to channel his aggression appropriately. That's even if Nene isn't one to admit it.
"I try to do my best for my team, and I can't worry about one person,'' Nene said of his battles with Perkins.
It sounded as if Perkins and Nene had compared notes.
"I don't never too much make it into a Nene and a Perk thing,'' Perkins said. "So it's more of a Denver and Oklahoma City thing. So, if he did get the best of me (in Game 1), they lost.''
Perkins had a mediocre outing, with four points and five rebounds, and admitted he got frustrated. But his team did indeed win.
Perhaps the brace on Perkins' leg played a role. There was a scary moment in the first minute of the third quarter when Nene banged knees with Perkins. Nene went down and had to be helped off the court with an injury to his right knee, the same one that cost him all but one game of 2005-06 due to a torn ACL.
Nene was able to return 7 ½ minutes later after being diagnosed with a knee contusion. Nene ended up with eight points in the second half after having 14 in the first half, and afterward insisted he's fine.
"He hit metal (from his brace) on the knee, and it's going to hurt,'' Nene said. "But I know nothing is going to be easy, and I fight though that. I can't lay down.''
Nene didn't participate in a light Denver workout Monday in preparation for Wednesday's Game 2 at Oklahoma City Arena. But Nuggets coach George Karl is confident his injury won't be a problem.
It better not be if Denver is going to have a chance in the series. It's been well-chronicled how the Nuggets are lacking in the go-to guy department since the Feb. 22 trade of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups to New York.
Nene, who averaged 14.5 points and 7.6 rebounds this season, isn't suddenly going to become that guy. But he sure can help when he's looking to score. Nene had a stretch in March in which he had four games out of five scoring 18 or more points. But he soon followed that with an eight-game streak in which he never scored more than 12.
Nene's unselfishness often confounds Karl, who has been urging Nene to shoot more since the coach arrived in Denver in January 2005. But at least Nene's big game Sunday, when he was three points shy of career playoff high, might inspire him to have another.
"I think Nene understands how he can score and what he has to do to take away Perkins' advantages,'' Karl said.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks pointed out several of the buckets by Nene, who shot 9-of-11, came in transition rather than one-on-one against Perkins. But Brooks, who coached Nene when he was a Denver assistant from 2003-06, knows it's not a good idea to let the big fellow gain confidence.
"He's right there at the All-Star level type of player,'' Brooks said. "He had a good game against us. We have to do a much better job of making his catches difficult. But that's not easy to do. He has good foot speed and quickness. But, hopefully, we'll do a better job on him.''
Not if Martin's advice continues to work for Nene. Martin, who arrived in Denver in 2004, and Nene, who showed up as a rookie in 2002, are by far the two Nuggets with the longest continuous tenures.
"They can't guard him,'' Martin said of Nene. "He's too quick, too strong. They might try to body him up. But he can go around them. But I don't feel they can guard him. So the only thing they can do is frustrate him.''
At least the "Beast'' didn't have that problem in Game 1.
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