As this wildly competitive first-round series heads back to Oklahoma City for a pivotal Game 5, the Thunder’s lead assignment is finding a way to get its All-Star back on track.
But OKC is not alone. The same task holds true for the Grizzlies.
The shooting struggles of both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have plagued the Thunder. But Zach Randolph’s extended slump has had nearly as big an effect on the Grizzlies’ sputtering offense.
And the Thunder has a rejuvenated Kendrick Perkins to thank for that.
OKC’s much-maligned big man is playing his most impactful basketball in a couple seasons. Perkins’ best days are far behind him. He’ll never again average a double-double, like he did back in 2009 during a 7-game Celtics-Bulls series. And he won’t be putting up any 16-point, 19-rebound, 7-block performances, like the one he compiled in Game 5 of that marathon.
But even without half the spring that many forget he once had, Perkins has held a heavy influence on this series. And beyond Reggie Jackson’s heroics, he may be the next biggest reason OKC was able to pull out a crucial Game 4.
Guarded primarily by Perkins all game, Randolph labored through a 5-of-14 shooting night. The two-time All-Star was so out of sorts that Memphis coach Dave Joerger actually benched him for much of the fourth quarter.
In the past two games, Randolph went 10-of-34 from the field. In the series, the career 47 percent shooter is at a 36 percent clip. His struggles have had a direct effect on the Grizzlies attack.
“We’re having a little bit of trouble getting the ball to Zach,” Marc Gasol said. “We have to get him the ball closer to the basket. We’re getting him the ball at 15 feet.”
Sounds like a Kendrick Perkins problem.
The Thunder big man — often lauded for his acute understanding of defensive positioning — has continually pushed the bruising Randolph off his preferred spots. It has forced him into low-percentage mid-range jumpers and a variety of tough, off-balance baseline floaters over a strong contest.
“I’ve preached since I’ve been here, Perk is the best post defender in the NBA,” Russell Westbrook said.
But Perkins’ offense has been just as important — not because he’s been a heavy producer (17 points in four games) but because he hasn’t been a burden. Typically a liability on that end, Perkins has made six of his nine shots in the series, punishing the Grizzlies at key times when they’ve left him to overhelp on others.
And because of that relative effectiveness, it’s allowed him to stay on the floor for 25.5 minutes per game, six more than his season average, able to contribute his punishing screen-setting and unmatched post defense.
“I’m just confident,” Perkins said.
Before Game 3, there was an interesting exchange caught by TNT’s mic’d-up cameras, with Perkins and Randolph chatting pregame with referee Monty McCutchen.
Perkins called the ref and Randolph over, telling McCutchen: “Me and him been banging (in the post) a lot, sometimes we ain't in play and sometimes we're locking up each other.” Perkins was essentially asking McCutchen to allow the maximum amount of contact and holding before calling a foul. Randolph, for some reason, agreed.
And he’s been struggling ever since, unable to shake Perkins physical defense.
Just the kind of series Kendrick Perkins was put on this Earth to play in. And just the kind of refereeing he likes.