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Thursday, June 7, 2012
Kendrick Perkins back in Finals

By LZ Granderson
ESPN.com

He's rarely seen in highlights.

He doesn't take many trips to the interview room after games.

In fact, the most pub he's probably gotten all season was being on the wrong end of a monster Blake Griffin dunk in January.

Tim Duncan
Kendrick Perkins contributed to the defense that slowed Tim Duncan.

But the reason Kendrick Perkins is heading back to the NBA Finals for the third time in five years is because he's willing to get dunked on for the sake of protecting the basket. He boxes out, fouls, blocks shots, rebounds; he does all the ugly things a team needs to win playoff games. He makes the blue-collar plays so the Big Threes -- like the Celtics' and Thunder's -- can do all the pretty stuff, like score.

It isn't glamorous work, but it isn't thankless either.

When Perkins was traded from Boston to Oklahoma City at the 2011 trade deadline, the players he left behind were more than a little upset. Kevin Garnett equated it to losing a family member. Paul Pierce said he was emotional, and GM Danny Ainge said he agonized over the decision. But the true agony came later, when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade carved up the team's interior defense as the Heat advanced with a 4-1 series win in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The Celtics will feel even more pain if they make it back to the Finals and see their "family member" roaming the paint, turning their post-ups into jump shots and demanding double-teams to keep him off the offensive glass.

When asked about the possibility of facing his old team in the Finals, Perk had this to say: "I really don't care." That's typical Perk, and that's why the Thunder brought him over, signed him to a contract extension within a week of his arrival, and credit him -- a guy who hardly shows up in the stat sheet -- for their success. Before he got there, guys were playing out of position: Serge Ibaka as an undersized center and Kevin Durant as a wafer-thin power forward. Now, they have not only size but also "I really don't care" grit that has materialized in the win column. They are 80-34 in games in which Perk has played, including the playoffs, and this season he led the team in plus/minus per 48 minutes during crunch time, according to 82games.com.

Is he a role player?

Kevin Durant, Kendrick Perkins
Kendrick Perkins, right, won't be upstaging Kevin Durant.

Sure.

But what important player doesn't have a role? Durant has a role, Russell Westbrook has a role, James Harden has a role, and Perk is very good at his -- clearly. Three trips to the Finals as a starting center by the age of 27 is not just luck. Not when one championship-caliber team actively pursues you and another struggles after letting you go. The league is filled with offensively challenged big men who hustle and throw their weight around, but few non-scorers are depended on the way Perkins is.

"I don't think Perk played well [in San Antonio], and he understands that," OKC coach Scotty Brooks said about the first two games of the Thunder's series against the Spurs. "Perk has a lot of pride in his ability and what he brings to this team. We don't win games without Perk. He's the anchor on the defensive end. He brings toughness. He has leadership."

He has a ring.

And judging from how his team adjusted after Game 2 of the series against the Spurs, it's very likely he's going to have another one by the end of the month.

The Thunder's Big Three is just that good.

Perkins' presence is just that impactful.

Much in the way Robert Horry, Steve Kerr and Michael Cooper were important to their championship teams.

Of course, the big difference is that those guys were known for hitting big shots. I doubt Perk will stumble into the same sort of singular moment of glory. He makes an impact outside the spotlight. He's more likely to set the pick that gets that shooter free. He's the guy who draws double-teams on the boards so that other players can get offensive rebounds. He alters shots.

On occasion he'll get dunked on, but that's OK. Griffin will always have that highlight, but he got swept out of the playoffs by the Spurs with Duncan shooting nearly 60 percent. Perkins is moving on after his defense helped hold Duncan to less than 45 percent shooting.

That doesn't make for a very sexy YouTube clip … but it does lead to rings.