Laker coach Phil Jackson wonders if Kendrick Perkins' defensive prowess came from sharing the court with Kevin Garnett.
Sunday night in Los Angeles, Jackson can see for himself. The Lakers play the Thunder for the first time with Perkins in Oklahoma City blue.
But Clifford Ray doesn't need to see for himself. Perkins' mentor — and a former Oklahoma Sooner — says Perkins' defense was well-refined before the 2007 trade that brought Garnett and an NBA title to Boston.
“By the time Garnett got there, I had been there two years,” Ray said. Perkins was “way ahead” defensively by then.
Ray played for John MacLeod at OU from 1968-71, spent 10 years as an NBA center and then coached for five franchises, including the Celtics from 2005 through 2010, before he was dismissed, an unpopular move in the eyes of Celtic fans.
The man knows defense. The man knows interior defense.
“If I had to grade Perkins' understanding of the game, I'd have to give him A's,” Ray said. “Perk was always a student of the game. Perk is always two plays ahead. He sees what's going to take place. He directs traffic.”
That's opposite of the image portrayed by Jackson. “I don't know how much experience he has if Garnett's not talking in his ear and sending him where to go,” Jackson said of Perkins.
Perkins loves Garnett — chose his No. 5 to wear with the Thunder, when 43 wasn't available — but won't give ground.
Perkins said he already was playing ferocious defense, “just got a little noticed when Kevin got there. I learned a lot from him, but I wouldn't give him all the credit.”
Truth is, Ray, not Garnett, was Perkins' teacher. The 62-year-old Ray anchored Golden State's defense during a 1975 NBA title season, and his reputation has not withered. Dwight Howard credits Ray for his early development when Ray was a Magic assistant; Robert Parish credits his early development to Ray, when they were Warrior teammates. Ray and Parish have run big-man camps together over the years. Another new Thunder, Nazr Mohammed, is a former Ray camper.
“Great guy,” Perkins said of Ray. “One of a kind. Genuine person. Very loving type of guy. The NBA is going to miss him. I learned a lot from him. He always had your back.”
Ray, who is in semiretirement, says Perkins has benefited from being coached by a real center, says too many guards and small forwards are coaching today's NBA big men.
“He understands the game from a defensive standpoint,” Ray said. “He's a natural post man. He got to work for a guy who played center. He had some good training.”
Perkins' value on the court is difficult to detect by the untrained eye. Post defense is not an easily-measured statistic.
But any Thunder fan can see the difference in this team since Perkins' arrival. Fewer easy baskets by the opponents. More contested shots. Fewer points.
And Ray saw it coming. “I'm tickled to death,” Ray said of the trade that brought Perkins from Boston, “simply because it finally gives them a defensive presence on the inside. Might push the team another notch.”
Consider it done. The Thunder is 17-6 since the trade and 11-3 since Perkins started playing.
Ray offers two examples of Perkins' value, both with games in which Perkins didn't play.
* Game 6 of the Thunder-Laker playoff series, won by LA on Pau Gasol's putback at the buzzer. Perkins “never would have left Gasol to come out of the lane to block a jump shot. Europeans, they don't understand the importance of the paint. If that's Perkins, that never would have happened. He would have stayed home.”
* Game 7 of the Celtic-Laker NBA Finals, won by LA 83-79. Perkins did not play, having been injured the previous game. The Lakers survived with 23 offensive rebounds, including nine in the fourth quarter.
“We were up,” Ray said. “Had we been able to rebound the ball ... with Perkins on the floor, never would have happened. We would have won that game.
“I really thought that was the time they learned to appreciate Perkins, what he meant to the team ... he's special in my book.”
The feeling is mutual.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including AM-640 and FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.