Kendrick Perkins couldn’t sleep Monday night. After seven months away from the game and just a little over six months removed from anterior cruciate ligament surgery, Perkins was just hours away from making his long-awaited return. So, he went to the gym around 10 p.m. and stayed there until Monday became Tuesday.
So much had gone into this. All the long, lonely miles he spent wearing out the treadmill, watching his teammates practice. All the laps he swam in the pool trying to strengthen his knee for what lies ahead. He could barely contain his smile when reporters pestered him before the game after word leaked out that he was playing against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a full 10 days before his ambitious target date of Feb. 4.
When the moment arrived and Perkins checked into his first game of the 2010-11 season, the crowd at TD Garden gave him a standing ovation that lasted from the time he stood up on the bench through the two free throws that Ramon Sessions had lined up.
He was trying not to get emotional because while Perkins wears his on his sleeve, he’s the last person to break down while he’s on the court. “They showed a lot of love,” he said. “It was a great feeling.”
Doc Rivers, as he so often does, put it best.
“That was awesome,” Rivers said. “There’s people in the crowd that work hard every day. Blue collar. Perk identifies with all those people. If you are a guy that works 9-5, you’ve got to love Perk because that’s who he is.”
As they should have, the Celtics beat the woeful Cavs 112-95 (click here for the recap), but this was all about Perkins and what is, and what may be in the not-so-distant future.
For six months they have been saying that having Perkins back would be a luxury, not a necessity. But then Jermaine O’Neal’s knee turned balky and Shaquille O’Neal went through the kinds of things that happen to most 38-year-old basketball players. Suddenly, Perkins’ return was very much in demand.
The Celtics say that the injuries didn’t play a role in his accelerated timetable. As late as Monday afternoon there was no indication that Perkins would be back before they returned from their four-game west coast trip. That changed after the medical staff cleared him to play, and honestly, the timing couldn’t have been better.
“I don’t know the words to use, but [we’ve been] less than ourselves over the three or four months we’ve been together,” Ray Allen said. “Just waiting. We’ve had great success with the guys we’ve been using, but we haven’t had the lineup has been consistent over the last three and half years.”
They’re not fully back yet. Perkins is on a strict minutes count for the time being and Rivers doesn’t want him to play more than 16-18 per night on the upcoming trip. Like everything else, that’s probably negotiable.
Asked if that would be hard for him to digest, Perkins shot back with a mixture of humor and honesty, “It’s going to be hard from Doc’s end. Me and Doc might have to fight over that. If I’m feeling all right, I might tell him to leave him in.” Then he added, “They just want the best for me. Whatever they say goes.”
Perkins tried to stay in the game early in the fourth when it was already a rout. He wanted to work on his timing and when Rivers motioned for a sub, Perkins turned his back to try to delay the inevitable. “I’m 6-10, 275,” he said with a laugh. “I’m too big to try to hide.”
It will be tempting to keep Perkins out there for longer than the allotted time because he looked really good in his return. He had seven points, six rebounds and three assists in a little over 17 minutes, but more than the numbers he looked fresh and energized.
Soon after he checked in, Cavs forward J.J. Hickson decided to test him out. Hickson sprinted fullcourt after a miss, but there was Perkins with him stride for stride. When the two settled back into the paint, Hickson was met with a little shove from Perkins, just to let him know who he was dealing with.
Perkins pulled out all the stops. After a foul call he didn’t like he took a few steps toward an official before Rajon Rondo intervened. “I was trying to get a tech to show everybody I was back,” he said, probably half-serious.
“At the end of the day, Perk’s going to be Perk,” Rivers said. “He almost ran after the guy the one time and I was thinking, you’ve got to be kidding me. Perk’s back.”
Everyone on the bench saw the same thing and said the same thing. Perk’s back.
For the last seven months the Celtics have been thinking about what it would be like to have Perkins back out there with them. They got a little taste of it Tuesday night.
“Once we get healthy all the way, I think we’ll be pretty much unstoppable,” Perkins said. “Especially in our frontcourt we can throw whatever at you. We’ve got all the weapons. We just got to make sure we use them.”
Here are three more points from a blowout:
DON’T MAKE PAUL PIERCE ANGRY
Late in the first quarter, Paul Pierce and Cavs forward Joey Graham had a conversation. It didn’t seem friendly. The Cavs were leading 23-21 at the time. Two and a half minutes later they were down 34-26 and Pierce had scored all of the 13 Celtic points.
“That’s who Paul is,” Rivers said.
Pierce scored 17 points in the first quarter, part of a concerted effort on his part to get off to good starts. He finished the first half with 24 points and didn’t score after that. His work was done.
He tweaked his ankle at the end of the third quarter and wound up leaving the bench a few minutes before it was over to get treatment, but he said he was fine and didn’t think it was anything serious.
Asked about the Graham conversation, Pierce pivoted and said, “Good night, y’all.” For Pierce, it was a very good night.
THE RONDO-ROBINSON BACKCOURT
Let’s face it: The Cavs had about as much chance of beating the Celtics as Boston city councilor Chuck Turner did of beating the Feds. The margin allowed Rivers to experiment a little bit and he trotted out the Nate Robinson-Rajon Rondo backcourt for extended minutes.
“That’s a great lineup for Nate because Nate doesn’t have to handle the ball as much when Rondo’s on the floor,” Rivers said.
It’s a difficult lineup for Rivers to play because of the size issue, but there might be a couple of opportunities to break it out on the upcoming trip. There’s no doubt that it helps Robinson offensively.
“Rondo’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around,” Robinson said. “He makes it easier out there playing. He calls the plays at the perfect time. He just a hell of a player.”
Defensively, the two can play a kind of a kamikaze fullcourt press, which indulges Rondo’s tendency to gamble and cause havoc.
“For me, I know Rondo’s going to be there to pick up fullcourt,” Robinson said. “I just try to turn my man as much as I can and try to turn him the way where [Rondo’s] at. He gambles a lot, which is a good thing because it keeps the offense honest. We just try to make them do things they don’t like to do.”
Rivers has long been intrigued with the idea of playing the two of them together. It will be interesting to see if he keeps experimenting with it.
THE DEPTH AT SMALL FORWARD
Marquis Daniels wasn’t with the team Tuesday because of a family issue. Rivers said he thinks Daniels will be able to join the team in Portland for the first game of the road trip.
Daniels’ absence opened up a long-standing issue with this steam: their lack of depth behind Pierce at small forward. In various practices Rivers has used Luke Harangody and Glen Davis at small forward, but that isn’t something he wants to do in games.
On Tuesday, the coach used several different rotations combinations, mixing and matching Pierce and Ray Allen to keep a wing shooter on the floor.
Ultimately the job fell to Von Wafer who has quietly strung together some solid outings in recent weeks. He had a season-high 12 points against the Kings, but that was a blowout. More impressive was his six points in 12 minutes stint in a close game against Detroit.
Wafer only scored five against the Cavs, but he looked more assertive and comfortable on the floor.
“I feel it. Definitely,” he said. “My shots are starting to feel better. Even the one I missed tonight felt good.”