- Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Senior Writer
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You would have surmised it happened too quickly to process it properly. One minute Kendrick Perkins was barking at the officials, shoving guys in purple and yellow, and the next he was sprawled on the Staples Center court, grabbing his knee after landing awkwardly in pursuit of a rebound.
Sometimes, such drastic turns of events are blurs. Sometimes, you aren't exactly sure what just happened.
Not this time. Perkins knew instantly his season was over.
"The pain was different,'' Perkins said of tearing ligaments in his right knee June 15, 2010. "The kind that makes you think, OK, this is bad.''
"One of the worst feelings I had in a long, long time,'' said Perkins.
What Perkins watched from his perch on the bench was the Lakers snatch away the NBA championship by annihilating the Celtics on the offensive glass. The tally (23-8) still makes Doc Rivers blanch. It is no coincidence that Boston returns to Los Angeles for Sunday's Finals rematch with no fewer than four (near) 7-footers on its roster.
It's a tradition, really. The Celtics acquired Dennis Johnson to counter Magic Johnson. The Lakers added Mychal Thompson to help offset Kevin McHale. In the wake of their fourth-quarter collapse and their inability to control the glass in Game 7, Boston has assembled a cadre of bodies to combat the length of Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. (It is worth mentioning Boston's big fellas will also come in handy against Miami, Orlando and Chicago.)
The bi-annual Boston-Los Angeles regular-season tilt will undoubtedly unleash another round of local teeth gnashing. How could the Celtics hold the Lakers to 32 percent shooting and coax Kobe Bryant into missing 18 of 24 shots and still lose the game? What if Rasheed Wallace had bothered to be in peak condition throughout the 2009-10 season? Maybe then he wouldn't have been running on fumes in that critical fourth quarter. And, of course, there's the old, familiar lament for Celtics fans: What if Perkins could have played in Game 7? Surely the outcome would have been different.
Play that card if you like, but remember the Lakers toiled throughout the 2008 Finals without the young, oft-injured Bynum.
"You really can't ever really say how a game is going to turn out," Perkins concurred. "I know one thing: I would have helped with the rebounding [in Game 7]. I would have helped with the defense. We only lost by four points. Aw, it don't matter now, anyway.''
He's right. It doesn't. The Celtics have moved on and so have the Lakers. Perkins underwent surgery, completed a grueling rehabilitation program and made it back just in time to revisit the venue where his career collapsed in a heap. There have been tweaks to both rosters (Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar are out, Matt Barnes and Steve Blake are in), but the nucleus of both rosters remains the same.
Jerry West made headlines by declaring the Lakers were "getting long in the tooth," particularly defensively. The Lakers weigh in as the second-oldest team in the league with an average age of just under 30 years old. Their roster includes 10 players 30 or older.
Yet, that data is slightly misleading. Theo Ratliff (37) and Joe Smith (35) inflate the numbers. The core of the team includes Kobe Bryant (32), Gasol (30), Ron Artest (31), Derek Fisher (36) and Bynum, who is only 23 years old. Yes, Kobe and Fisher (they were rookies together) have some serious miles on the odometer, but they are both disciplined veterans who have learned to conserve their energy and protect their bodies.
The Celtics, incidentally, are the league's fifth-oldest team with an average age of 28.3 years. Yet their core includes some advanced numbers: Ray Allen is 35, KG is 34, Paul Pierce is 33 and Shaquille O'Neal, the oldest player in the league, will turn 39 in March.
Rajon Rondo (24) is the youthful leader who offsets his more stately teammates.
Does anyone honestly believe either of these teams is too old to get it done when it matters?
Some additional numbers to consider in the age game: The oldest team in the league is the, ahem, Miami Heat, with an average age of 30.19 with nine players on the roster who are 30 or older. These things happen when you take on Juwan Howard, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier.
The average age of the three Miami players that truly matter: 27 years old.
End of discussion.
(One more aside: Can we put to rest the misinformed notion that the San Antonio Spurs are too old to compete? The average age of their roster is 27.9 years. Tim Duncan might be aging, but his supporting cast isn't.)
Kendrick Perkins is 26. He's a free agent at the end of the season and his Wes Welker-like recovery is no doubt motivated, in part, by his uncertain future. Perkins wants to re-up with Boston; he's convinced his learning curve is still pointing straight up.
"You can always pick up new things,'' Perkins said. "About execution, mostly. I've been watching Ray Allen fight to get open, and I can see now how I can set a better screen, make it easier for him.''
Perkins logged 21 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night and came up one shy of a double-double (10 pts, nine rebounds). He will be a work in progress as he regains his timing and re-establishes his confidence.
"The only thing I'm worried about is my stamina,'' Perkins said. "This leg has already taken some pretty big hits in practice. Do you see how Big Baby plays? It's been tested, man.''
For now, Perkins will come off the bench, yet Rivers has some interesting decisions to ponder moving forward. With Shaq as a starter, Rondo has four legitimate offensive options to choose from (one reason his assists are up). And because O'Neal is still a commanding force on the block, teams hesitate to leave him to double KG or Pierce, which help explains why Boston's shooting percentage is so high.
Yet Shaq's defensive deficiencies, particularly on the pick and roll, tend to be Perkins' strengths. The Celtics need their young center to re-establish himself as a stopper.
A good showing in a Lakers-Celtics matinee is a decent place to start. Perkins has insisted he doesn't care whether he starts or comes off the bench.
"Whatever Doc wants,'' Perkins said. "The only time I might give him a hard time is if he wants to watch my minutes and I'm feeling good. Then maybe I'm going to tell him to keep me out there.''
There are always delicious subplots with each Celtics-Lakers chapter. Shaq's return to L.A., this time in shamrock green, is a sound bite waiting to explode.
Just this week, Phil Jackson reiterated his desire to retire at the end of the season, whether the Lakers win another championship or not. If the Celtics, in fact, secure Banner 18, is it unreasonable to expect that Shaq or KG might decide to call it a day?
That's a discussion for June. It is still only January, but when the Lakers and Celtics cross paths, we can't help but look at what could have been, and what still might be.
5dEthan Sherwood Strauss
6dMatt Walks, ESPN.com