Kendrick Perkins stood all alone as the last player remaining inside the Thunder's locker room following Wednesday night's win against Utah.
After answering a steady stream of questions by two lingering reporters, Perkins was free to go home. Free to rest his bones after battling Jazz bruiser Al Jefferson for the better part of 26 minutes. But, as he pushed in his black swivel-style chair, Perkins voluntarily offered up one last bit of insight just before calling it a night.
“Tha-bo is my new fav-o-rite de-fen-der,” Perkins announced, elongating each syllable in his South Texas twang for maximum effect.
Five games are all it took for Perkins to realize what suffocating defense Thabo Sefolosha is capable of.
“You tend to take guys like Thabo for granted until you're out there on the court,” Perkins said.
What Perkins has seen in Sefolosha is a perpetual pest, a player who disrupts opposing offenses using skill and savvy, toughness and tenacity. Wednesday's effort by Sefolosha served as the last shred of evidence Perkins needed to see.
In the 106-94 win over the Jazz, Sefolosha helped hold Utah wing players C.J. Miles and Gordon Hayward to a combined 18 points on 3-for-22 shooting. Additionally, Sefolosha supplied adequate help for Perkins on Jefferson, who still managed to bully his way to a game-high 32 points with 12 rebounds. But Sefolosha's smarts and game-changing defensive style had stood out once and for all to Perkins.
Keep in mind Wednesday's effort by Sefolosha came on the heels of him helping to hold Charlotte swingman Stephen Jackson to 18 points on 5-for-18 shooting in a 99-82 win last Friday, as well as a stifling performance that helped limit Dwyane Wade to 21 points on 7-for-21 shooting in a surprising 96-85 road win at Miami on March 16.
“Since I've been playing with him, I've noticed what he brings,” Perkins said. “He takes a lot of pressure off his teammates. That's key when you got a guy like that who you don't have to help as much on. And he's guarding the best wing man every night. That's also taking a lot of pressure off (Kevin Durant).”
If anybody knows defense it's Perkins. Before joining the Thunder, Perkins was one of the linchpins of a defense in Boston that ranked in the top five in points allowed per game the past three seasons while leading the league in defensive field-goal percentage in two of the past three years.
“I definitely appreciate that,” Sefolosha said when informed about Perkins' praise. “It's a nice compliment.”
Perkins compared Sefolosha to a more athletic Bruce Bowen, whose dogged defense helped San Antonio secure three championships in 2003, 2005 and 2007. Sefolosha, who also can take a fair amount of credit for holding Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant to 17 points on 8-for-22 shooting this season, said his most significant weapon is being aware of what the opposing team is trying to run and taking away that option.
Sefolosha will stick his nose in the passing lane. Body up on the block. Chase his man across the court and fight through screens relentlessly. Anything to disrupt a team's set. He wants to make players make tough passes and make his man take tough shots.
Sefolosha prides himself on doing his work early. That means he'll rather deny his man the ball instead of allowing him to catch it and have to rely on defending a deadly offensive player. Or, rather than letting a Wade or Bryant start their attack from a sweet spot, Sefolosha aims to play physical and force them to catch the ball from just beyond their comfort zones.
What Perkins admires most about Sefolosha, though, is how he supplies defense effectively without needing much for himself.
“He's a guy who brings value to the court without it really showing up in the stat sheet,” Perkins said. “He's a huge part of why we're a great defensive team.”
Imagine what Perkins might have thought of Sefolosha had he seen him last season, before a January knee injury derailed his defensive dominance. That setback, much like Sefolosha's overall impact, has been largely overlooked all year when evaluating Sefolosha.
Except by those who have paid attention.
“He plays through everything,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “When you're guarding the best players, you're fighting through screen after screen after screen. You're getting bumped and Charley horses. You're getting back-picked. You're getting multiple picks, and big guys are setting them.
“He plays every game like his body is feeling great. The toughness he brings to our team, it's hard not to appreciate.”
DEFENSIVE CHECKLIST According to Thunder players and coaches, here are the primary factors in becoming a good defender: - Contesting every shot. - Ability to deny your opponent the ball. - Keeping your opponent away from his comfort area. - Wingspan at least four inches longer than your height. - Maintaining a physical presence. - Constant effort and desire. NBA TOP 10 PERIMETER DEFENDERS 1. Tony Allen (Memphis) 6-4, 213: Former Oklahoma State standout mentioned frequently by several Thunder players and personnel. 2. Kobe Bryant (LA Lakers) 6-6, 205: He has been first-team all-defensive selection eight times in 11 seasons, including the last five. 3. Thabo Sefolosha (Thunder) 6-7, 215: His toughness, focus, effort and condor-like 7-foot wingspan put him among the league's elite. 4. Shane Battier (Memphis) 6-8, 220: Replaces Allen off the bench, which brings little relief for standout scorers against the Grizzlies. 5. Ron Artest (LA Lakers) 6-7, 260: He's a two-time, first-team selection, but also has been ignored as a choice in several other seasons. 6. Nicolas Batum (Portland) 6-8, 200: In just his third season, this 22-year-old Frenchman has quickly earned the respect of his peers. 7. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (Milwaukee) 6-8, 230: A UCLA product and versatile defender with a wing span as long as his name. 8. Trevor Ariza (New Orleans) 6-8, 210: A UCLA product who has been in demand, having played for five teams in seven seasons. 9. Arron Afflalo (Denver) 6-5, 215: A UCLA product excelling for the Nuggets who is about to cash in on the fruits of his hard labor. 10. Kirk Hinrich (Atlanta) 6-4, 190: A former first-team all-defensive pick who joined the Hawks to give them a defensive presence. Thunder vs. Timberwolves When: 7 p.m. Friday Where: Oklahoma City Arena. TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD Ch. 722). Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM.