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Perkins set for more big stuff

Kendrick Perkins (43) and Shaquille O’Neal sized each other up in Game 6. Kendrick Perkins (43) and Shaquille O’Neal sized each other up in Game 6. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 15, 2010

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Kendrick Perkins’s battle with Shaquille O’Neal could just as easily have been in a steel cage.

Five minutes into Game 1, Perkins had six stitches in his lip because of the Cavaliers’ big man. “I’m already ugly,’’ Perkins joked. “I can’t add no more to it.’’

He took an elbow to the neck in Game 5 that frustrated him to the point that he and O’Neal drew technicals, and Kevin Garnett had to calm him down. In Game 6, O’Neal lost his footing and tumbled to the parquet, with Perkins breaking the fall.

His reward for surviving the six-game Texas death match? A paint battle with the well-rested Dwight Howard, the pseudo 7-footer known to devour rebounds, swat away layups and floaters, and crush opposing big men like a movie monster does to small cities. The Magic haven’t played since finishing a sweep against Atlanta last Monday.

“It’s just the playoffs,’’ Perkins said. “It’s not going to get any easier. It’s tough going into the next round, but that’s what I’m here for, to be a defensive stopper on the block and guard those big guys. I can’t run from the challenge. It’s there, so I’ve just got to accept it.’’

Perkins couldn’t have had two tougher draws in consecutive series. But at least he won’t have to alter his mind-set to brace for Howard.

“They both have the same moves on the block,’’ Perkins said. “So it’s really like guarding the same type of guy.’’

Perkins and Howard can be each other’s Kryptonite. Howard’s dunks have put Perkins on a handful of posters. Perkins’s defense has been the reason Howard has complained to referees.

They finished the regular season with 15 technicals apiece, and each was brought along by the same teacher.

Perkins and Howard were students of Clifford Ray, once hired in Orlando strictly to bring Howard along, now in Boston as the Celtics’ big man coach. Howard’s athletic gifts made him special; Perkins’s strength and intelligence turned him into a fearsome, if underrated, post defender.

After bouncing reigning two-time MVP LeBron James from the playoffs, the Celtics will have to deal with the reigning two-time defensive player of the year. Howard disrupts a game dramatically with his 7-foot-6-inch wingspan and freakish athleticism.

“With him, he’s more athletic,’’ Perkins said. “Not stronger, but more athletic. That’s the difference. I kind of use my weight against him. He kind of uses his athleticism. So it’s going to be interesting.’’

Howard was practically powerless offensively in the Magic’s first two meetings with the Celtics, going 3 for 11 in two games (9 points in an 83-78 victory in November, 5 points in a Christmas Day loss). Howard got whatever he wanted in a January victory (8 of 12 with 19 points and 10 rebounds). Then he had 16 points and 13 points in a February victory as the Magic won the season series, 3-1.

The Magic bounced the Celtics in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series last year, and Howard averaged 16.4 points and 17.1 rebounds. The Celtics were thin in the front court with Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe injured. This year, they have depth in a healthy Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Glen Davis, and Shelden Williams, who made cameo appearances in the Cleveland series.

“We’re deep on the bench so we’ve got to have faith in all the guys that are playing,’’ Perkins said. “So if I do get in foul trouble, Baby and Sheed are going to come in and support. Baby is an underrated defender. I don’t think he gets enough credit. He knows how to guard guys on the block, and you can’t move him. It’s just all about playing hard and having heart.’’

Wallace, who has struggled to grasp the Celtics’ defense, was crafty and effective against the Cavaliers, and will have to do more of the same against the Magic.

“You know they’ve got the big, young fellow down low,’’ Wallace said. “They have three bigs also, but we actually have four or five bigs. It’s going to be a good matchup.’’

Getting past Cleveland was more than grueling — Perkins has the bruises to back it up — but he isn’t thinking about being too banged up to run with a Magic team that has swept two straight series and has had more rest than any team in the postseason.

“We’ve got to make sure we come focused and ready for them,’’ Perkins said. “They’re undefeated in the playoffs. Right now, they might be the best team in the playoffs. So we’ve got to go out there and compete with them.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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