Ten months ago, Orlando center Dwight Howard gushed at how good Kendrick Perkins would make the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Ten days ago, Perkins unabashedly branded Howard as the toughest player he's ever had to cover.
That alone should tell you all you need to know about the admiration both big men have for one another. Perkins, remember, is the same player who despises his opponents. The same player who arrived in Oklahoma City and almost immediately announced he dislikes “everything” about L.A. Lakers forward Pau Gasol.
But when Perkins and Howard hook up Sunday night in the season opener for both teams, fans will be treated to a matchup that has become the NBA's best big man rivalry. Unlike most, this one has been built out of reverence rather than repugnance.
“We got a respect for each other,” Perkins said. “But at the same time, we always go out there and compete hard and play physical. Sometimes we come out with a busted lip every now and then or some bruised ribs. But that's just part of it.”
For two-plus seasons, the Thunder's biggest flaw was clear for all to see. Oklahoma City didn't have a big body to man the middle. Perkins became the surprising solution to that problem. At last year's deadline, the Thunder acquired Perkins in a blockbuster deal that sent Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and a 2012 first-round draft pick to Boston.
Within hours, Howard had echoed so many others who extolled OKC's end of the deal.
“They were already a tough team,” Howard said in February. “And they just got better … They're up their now. They have a legitimate chance of winning a title.”
Perkins could be the final piece to Oklahoma City's puzzle.
After being hampered by knee injuries for much of the past 1 1/2 years, Perkins is finally healthy. He lost 31 pounds over the offseason and has returned in perhaps the best shape of his career. He's proudly sporting a leaner, more chiseled physique, and he's confidently showing things on the court — two-handed reverse dunks, taking his man off the dribble and staying with smaller players on switches — that last year appeared to have deteriorated from his game.
Howard, who is viewed as the NBA's best center, now becomes Perkins' first real test.
“I'd rather start off on him and get it out the way early,” Perkins said with only a hint of humor.
Known for his passion and competitive fire, Perkins couldn't even avoid conceding that Howard is a matchup he doesn't enjoy.
“Honestly, nah I don't enjoy it,” Perkins said. “I don't think nobody in the league enjoys it. He's one of the strongest guys and most athletic so you got your hands full all game.”
Yet Perkins established himself in Boston as one of the few centers who could defend Howard without the help of a double team. In fact, when the Celtics shipped Perkins to the Thunder most observers figured the Magic would have an easier path to the title. Orlando and Boston had battled for Eastern Conference supremacy in the previous two postseasons, and it was the Howard-Perkins matchup that consistently impacted the outcomes.
When the two teams met in the 2009 semifinals, Perkins gave Howard all he could handle. Howard averaged 16.4 points, 17.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, but Perkins produced 10.4 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Perkins also limited Howard to 6.6 foul shots per game, or 4.1 fewer attempts than Howard averaged that season. The Magic ultimately advanced in seven games.
Statistically, Howard had much more success when the teams met again in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. He averaged 21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and three blocks, but Perkins and the Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals after winning in six games.
Howard and Perkins also have faced each other 22 times in the regular season. Howard has the slight edge in terms of team success with a 13-9 record. Sunday's game will be their first time on the court together since Feb. 6.
“The thing with Dwight is he just wants to run free and dunk and go for spinout lobs,” Perkins said. “I think you take away all his easy baskets and make him score over the top. That's when he kind of struggles a little bit. So if you make him score over the top of you and keep your body between him and the rim and make him score tough shots I think you're going to have a pretty good chance of guarding him.”
One thing we know is it'll surely be entertaining.
“It's going to be physical, and hopefully the refs let is stay physical,” said reserve center Nazr Mohammed. “You're going to see a battle.”
Thunder vs. Magic
When: 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Chesapeake Energy Arena.
TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD 722), ESPN (Cox 29, HD 720).
Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM.
Three things to know
* The Thunder split the two-game series with Orlando last season. Each team won on its home floor. Orlando won the last meeting with the Thunder short-handed following trades that brought Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed to Oklahoma City.
* The Thunder went 22-8 against Eastern Conference teams last season.
* This is the Thunder's second consecutive season hosting a game on Christmas. The Thunder defeated Denver, 114-106, at home last season.
Pos.; Player; Ht.; Pts.; Reb.; Ast.
G; Russell Westbrook; 6-3;21.9;4.6;8.2
G; Thabo Sefolosha; 6-7;5.1;4.4;1.4
F; Kevin Durant; 6-9;27.7;6.8;2.7
F; Serge Ibaka; 6-10;9.9;7.6;0.3
C; Kendrick Perkins; 6-10;5.1;7.9;0.9
Pos.; Player; Ht.; Pts.; Reb.; Ast.
G; Jameer Nelson; 6-0;13.1;3.0;6.0
G; Jason Richardson; 6-6;15.6;4.1;1.8
F; Hedo Turkoglu; 6-10;10.8;4.4;4.2
F; Ryan Anderson; 6-10;10.6;5.5;0.8
C; Dwight Howard; 6-11;22.9;14.1;1.4
* Stats are from the 2010-11 regular season.