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Face is just one facet of Perkins

Off the court, more smiles than frowns

By John Powers
Globe Staff / May 30, 2010

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The man you see is not the man he is, his character witnesses attest. Kendrick Perkins is a super-sized action figure with a sweet disposition.

“Perk is a great guy,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers says of his center with the big shoulders and the bigger frown. “I think everybody sees his body language and his scowl and they think differently of him. To those who know him, he’s absolutely a terrific guy, funny. But he’s not trying to have fun when the game starts.’’

On the court, Perkins plays an unlovable but vital role, banging and wrangling with the other voluminous creatures in the NBA’s menagerie. His job description does not call for delicacy or decorum, and referees have been quick to penalize what they deem his social indiscretions, deserved or not.

“That’s his identity,’’ says guard Ray Allen. “People always ask me why he’s so mad. Is he that mean? He always has a scowl on his face. I say, no. Perkins, he’s a teddy bear. He’s just out there intimidating, blocking shots, that’s all.’’

Put yourself in his position, his teammates suggest. Most nights during the regular season and throughout the playoffs, a gargantuan presence has tried to push through or over Perkins to the basket. In the opener of the Cleveland series, Shaquille O’Neal opened up his lip for half a dozen stitches.

“I’m already ugly,’’ Perkins shrugged. “I can’t add no more to it.’’

This is not a powder-puff game, not in the painted sector where Perkins operates. The work is beastly, bruising, and bloody. When Glen Davis stepped in after Perkins was dismissed from Game 5 with the Magic with his second technical, he ended up taking an airborne elbow from Dwight Howard that gave him a concussion and sent Davis woozily back to the dressing room.

Such are the hazards of the essential role that Perkins has been performing for the Celtics on a nightly basis since he took over the starting job in 2007. There are the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Allen. There is Rajon Rondo, the headbanded orchestrator. And there is Perkins, whose job is to interpose, interrupt, and interdict.

By its nature, his best work doesn’t turn up on the score sheet. But without it the Celtics would not be playing for their 18th championship this week.

“Every single guy in a uniform has a role and has a responsibility for us winning,’’ says Rivers. “Perk is that. Perk is our defender. He’s an offensive lineman. Never gets any credit, always in the trenches. Probably takes the most punishment of any player on our team and he just does his job.’’

During the run to the Finals, that meant dealing with Miami’s Jermaine O’Neal (6 feet 11 inches, 226 pounds), with Shaq (7-1, 325), and with Howard (6-11, 240), which made for a series of unsmiling evenings.

“Everybody recognizes what Perk does, but I don’t think they understand what he truly does,’’ says Davis. “For example, if Jermaine plays the way he’s capable of playing, we have a fight on our hands. We’ve got D-Wade and also O’Neal in the post, but Perk made sure that didn’t happen. If Shaq comes in and dominates like he’s used to, if Perk doesn’t come in and maintain Shaq and make sure that he doesn’t have big games, we struggle with Cleveland.’’

The big project
By definition, Perkins’s contribution is addition by subtraction. He is not expected to score, and he generally does not — his average was 10.1 points during the regular season and has been 5.6 during the playoffs. His career numbers for seven seasons are 6.4 and 7.0.

“I think I’m the best defender in the post,’’ Perkins declares, inviting no discussion.

The benefit of playing for Boston is that there’s no confusion about what Perkins is supposed to do.

“It’s still the Big Three team,’’ he says.

Two of them — Garnett and Allen — were wearing other jerseys when Perkins arrived on Causeway Street in the autumn of 2003, an 18-year-old man-child out of Clifton J. Ozen High School in Beaumont, Texas.

The Celtics never had taken a high schooler when they swapped with Memphis, who had drafted him 27th overall, and they understood that the Perkins Project would take some time.

“There are risks with all of the players left on the board at 27,’’ general manager Danny Ainge said that day. “But looking down the road in two years, we could be looking back at this draft and be saying we did something special.’’

The raw material was unmistakable. Perkins stood 6 feet 10 inches, weighed 285 pounds, had a wingspan of 7 feet 6 1/2 inches and a standing reach of 9-4 1/2. The Celtics loved his length, his strength, and his character. What Perkins needed was trimming and tutoring, and the club understood that.

“We were very patient,’’ says Ainge. “It wasn’t like we were drafting a player with one of the top few picks. The first year was a throwaway year from our perspective. We didn’t have any expectations at all.’’

Perkins gathered a fine coating of dust as a rookie, playing only 35 minutes in 10 games while watching Mark Blount perform in the pivot and didn’t appear in the ugly first-round playoff sweep by the Pacers. His primary job was to transform his body along professional specifications. In Year 2, the apprenticeship began, with 60 appearances, followed by 68 appearances with 40 starts in Year 3.

“The first couple of years I was here, I had a sign on my desk reminding me about him and Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair and Al Jefferson, who were all high school players,’’ recalls Rivers. “Don’t get frustrated with the fundamentals because they didn’t have a lot of them. They were still learning the game.’’

It took that long for Perkins to feel that he was able to hold his own against his elders and betters.

“It took me at least three years to just go out there and not worry about who I’m going against,’’ he says, “and just compete every night.’’

Once Garnett arrived in 2007, Perkins’s role was clarified and simplified.

“That helped a lot,’’ says Ainge. “It allowed Perk not to have to do more than what he’s good at, just like KG allows Paul to be who he is.’’

Technical difficulty
Rassling with big men in small spaces is a draining exercise, especially when the championship trophy is in view and the psychological challenge matches the physical. That’s how it was for Bill Russell against Wilt Chamberlain and for Dave Cowens against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in their title bouts and that’s how it has been for Perkins.

“All of it’s mental with me,’’ he says. “I just got finished dealing with Shaq and then it was Dwight. You’ve got to approach it with the right mind-set, because if you don’t, you can get dominated. Guys can come in and have a 40-plus night on you.

“I’m just trying to make it tough on them. I’m not overreacting. If you make a shot on me and it’s a tough shot, then I’m living with it.’’

What has been more difficult to live with are the fouls and the technicals (15 during the regular season, six during the playoffs) that have accompanied Perkins’s aggrieved who-me? post-whistle pleadings. Don’t the refs understand how exasperating his line of work can be?

“Perk does play with emotion, and that’s good and occasionally bad,’’ says Ainge. “But the good significantly outweighs the bad.’’

What Perkins has learned is that he needs to be available for duty. If the league hadn’t rescinded the second technical assessed by Eddie Rush in Game 5 of the Eastern finals, he would have been kept out of Friday’s clincher, where Perkins’s 33-plus minutes against Orlando were his most of the playoffs. One more T, though, will cost him a game in the Finals, as Perkins knows full well.

“Doc always says that the bigger man walks away,’’ he says. “You’ve got to go out there and play basketball. You can’t let guys get in your head.

“There’s going to be a lot of things trying to distract you. You’ve just got to go out there and play Celtic ball.’’

If it takes a poker face to do that, Perkins will ease off the dramatics. There will be time enough to smile after he puts another ring on his finger.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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