One of the best parts of playing in Oklahoma City is the fact that, because the city is still so new to the whole "pro sports" thing, you get a lot more leeway than you would in, say, New York, Boston or even a place like Salt Lake City. It's a sort of basketball chapel, where your mistakes are easily forgiven and the chance to atone for your mistakes is far greater than anywhere else on the outside.
There are two exceptions to this, though. 1) The James Harden trade and 2) Kendrick Perkins. Those two have become lightning rods for every other decision that has been made by the organization, built-in excuses that anyone can turn to when trying to criticize an otherwise-praised Thunder front office. The Harden trade has been discussed ad nauseum and, at this point, pretty much everyone is firmly entrenched in their beliefs and isn't really willing to hear the other side.
Perkins is a different story, though, because he is still very much a part of the team's championship aspirations and, in many ways, he remains the face of those aspirations. It wasn't until Perkins arrived, after all, that the Thunder were taken seriously. He brought that infamous toughness - the Perkins Scowl - that took the Thunder from a group of young, talented kids to a team with the added edge that could push them to a championship.
That image of Perkins has faded and been replaced by the aging corpse of a $9 million center that can't really catch, can't really score, and only thrives defensively against a certain type of opposing centers. In spite of all of that, with the constant calls for him to be traded and the incessant badgering of Scott Brooks for stubbornly starting him, the Perkins Scowl may be more important now than ever before.
The 2014-15 campaign could not have gotten off to a more disastrous start for the Thunder, losing seemingly every key piece of their championship core and, for the first time since their first year in OKC, staring at the real possibility that they may not be playing past April.
Before things reached their bleakest and Westbrook was injured against the Clippers, Brooks, of course, finally acknowledged Perkins' shortcomings when he announced the aging center would no longer be the starter. It was a huge decision because it was the most emphatic acknowledgment yet that Perkins' limitations, in this era of perimeter-based basketball, outweighed his contributions.
The simple fact that Russell Westbrook was around for the first two games meant that even Perkins' infamous leadership was no longer all that useful, and he really was just a measly backup ready to step in if Adams got into foul trouble.
When he came over from Boston, Perkins was the veteran voice that guided the young stars, even ones as talented as Durant and Westbrook. Countless playoff games, an NBA Finals appearance and a league MVP on the team diminish the value of a voice like Perkins, as Durant and Westbrook also grew into tremendous leaders in their own right.
Westbrook's injury changed that dynamic. Yet Saturday night's situation playing a game without both Westbrook and Durant meant that, while Perkins was still the bench guy, he was back in that role that Oklahoma City brought him in for many years ago. His leadership was called upon because it was needed.
That's where things stood Saturday night, and that's why Kendrick Perkins, despite the fact that he was listed as the backup center, played the best game of his career as a member of the Thunder. On top of that, he just may have given this ragtag group of young fill-ins the push they needed to keep the team afloat as they await the return of Westbrook and Durant.
It is worth praising the Thunder's starting center, too, as well as the entire starting five, because it was the tone they set early on that allowed Perkins to come in and score so effectively later on. Check out the first half play-by-play:
An easy hook shot for Adams, a foul at the rim for Adams, a short two for Ibaka, an open jumper for Ibaka, and another dunk for Adams in transition.
The criticism of the Westbrook/Durant Thunder is that they too often devolve into iso-ball and settle for difficult shots. That's fine when you have two of the five best players in the league shooting. Without those guys, and with a starting five that needs to work for every point possible, the offensive system becomes that much more important.
It's pretty clear that the mindset heading into these games is to work for the easiest shots possible. That means doing all of the little things right: exploiting mismatches, finding open guys, setting and utilizing good screens, running out in transition, outworking and outsmarting the opponent.
That's what that play-by-play illustrates too: a team that was going right into the nose of its opponent. Make the defense actually, you know, play defense. Make them bang bodies, make them account for everyone on the floor and maybe, just maybe, they wouldn't be able to keep up.
That's all easy to talk about after the fact, but it takes a concerted effort from every player to make it happen. That helps when guys aren't chasing any specific stats, which is something Perkins himself has always preached. Play basketball not as a group of basketball players, but as a basketball team.
That type of basketball results in what the Thunder had on display early on against Denver, a team that actually has legitimate players inside that should be able to stop an onslaught at the rim. The Thunder wouldn't have it though, and they attacked the lane throughout the entire game, save for a slow stretch at the start of the fourth when they tried getting cute against the Nuggets' smaller lineup.
The aggressive play led to a 31-20 free throw advantage for the Thunder, a glaring discrepancy that only comes when a team stays committed to attacking the opposing defense.
It wasn't particularly complicated and, when you get right down to it, it was actually just fundamental basketball performed exceptionally well. Perkins' offensive outburst in the second quarter embodied that simplicity, and gives a nice look into how the Thunder relied on the basic principles of matchup exploitation and floor spacing to create easy points and extend their lead.
Even on their first unsuccessful attempt, the Thunder clearly saw something they could exploit with Perkins. They get a basic ISO, only JaVale McGee is really tall and can pretty easily swipe away the attempt. Still, check Collison on the near side, who has a similar mismatch with Foye on him. Foye is sagging off a lot, largely because Collison isn't a good 3-point shooter, but it was similar sets run with Ibaka in Collison's place that proved effective throughout the contest.
That's what having an inside presence can do for the entire team. It creates a need to clog the inside even more, and creates that much more space on the floor for everyone else to operate. In hindsight, Perkins should have probably dished out to Collison, who could have either taken a shot at 3 (something he isn't necessarily terrible at) or swung it from there. Perkins attempt over McGee wasn't the wrong one, though, it was just a matter of height winning out over strength, meaning it wasn't so much of a mismatch as it was a one-on-one.
This recognized mismatch became important later on.
In an attempt to find that mismatch, the Thunder do here what they did so well throughout the game: get out in transition. You see Faried struggling to get back and match up, and there are four Nuggets bunched inside looking around at who to pick up. Meanwhile, Foye draws the task of guarding a guy that is way bigger and stronger than him.
Perkins, for all of his offensive struggles, is still able to execute basic post moves, and you can see the Thunder bench, sensing the mismatch, urging Perkins to exploit it. It takes Perkins a little longer to recognize the play that you would like, but he does get there, and it results in an essentially uncontested hook that falls for two easy points.
Just as important as the two points is the confidence it instills in Perkins, who has always fed off the energy of the building. Perkins now has that edge and, given the right matchup, he knows can put the ball in the hoop. The barrage is on.
Next up is yet another simple set that still gives the Thunder exactly what they need, a mismatch. A brush screen by Ibaka is enough to create the switch, largely because the Nuggets believed they could get by with Gallinari guarding Perkins while Faried handled the far more offensively-capable Ibaka. Perkins, to his credit, takes that to heart and goes right at the undersized Gallinari, bruising his way to the rim and putting it through once again.
Studies have been done that diminish the legitimacy of things like momentum in basketball, but a guy like Perkins may be an exception to that rule. You see in his strut after the make that this is clearly Perkins in peak form and, again, if the offense can run inside-out through Perkins, it makes doing all of the other little basketball things that much easier.
At this point, the Thunder isn't even bothering running sets or creating mismatches. This is just a matter of getting down the court, clearing out, and letting Perkins go to work. Faried is a talented player that thrives on hustle, so for Perkins to take him one-on-one is a huge statement not just for Perkins, but for the entire team, as if to say: "We're not standing down for anyone."
Leading by example is often the easiest way to make a point, and when a guy that is such a gifted communicator like Perkins can also score this effectively, it gives his voice that much more validity and can rally a team that much more.
The icing on the cake comes once more at the hands of Gallinari, and you see once again just how hard the Thunder work to get Perkins isolated on Galllinari. These are sets that have been run basically since basketball was invented, and they've always been contingent on a gifted big man capitalizing on his position on the floor and going from there.
Perkins added two more big field goals in the fourth quarter through essentially the same means. He also earned a few trips to the free throw line also by being in the right place and drawing fouls from defenders looking to avoid giving up easy points.
Is all of this really something the Thunder should come to expect over the next two months or so while we wait for Westbrook and Durant to come back and start playing the way that's defined Thunder basketball over the years? It's obviously unrealistic to expect a guy like Perkins to all of a sudden start scoring at such a dramatic and efficient clip.
But take just Perkins out of the equation, and add the other big men like Adams, Ibaka and even Lance Thomas, and it's an entire style of play that the Thunder can absolutely try and replicate going forward. It takes unselfish attitudes from all, as well as smart decision-making and play recognition. There were flashes of it all throughout Saturday's game, with Perkins' outburst just being the loudest, most obvious example.
It's still a long time until Westbrook and Durant will return and make things that much easier on the offense. It will take leadership from guys who will look to instill old school values, as well as basic, old-school style of basketball, to kickstart a team without any real identity in the absence of its two stars. Those values are embodied by the rugged Perkins, who has never given up on his ability in spite of being the biggest lightning rod for the past three seasons.
For the time being, the Perkins Scowl is the face of a Thunder team desperately trying to keep its head above water and prove its worth while it awaits its fresh-faced superstars to save the day.