A humble Kendrick Perkins said yesterday he has no idea how he’ll be received by Celtics fans tonight in his return to TD Garden with the Thunder.
“I don’t know exactly what to expect going into [tonight],’’ the ex-Boston center said. “It’s like up and down. You really want to come in and just focus on basketball and try to get the win, but at the same time, there’s going to be probably a lot of things going on.’’
The expected emotional welcome back would confirm to Perkins his importance to the franchise, his impact on the 2008 title team, and the regret some have at the fact that he was traded.
The Celtics moved Perkins and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City Feb. 24, 2011 for Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, and a 2012 first-round pick. Perkins was coming off a torn right ACL sustained during the 2010 Finals and a strained left MCL just days before the trade.
Saying he thought the team needed more energy, team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge gambled on Green’s potential and trusted aging centers Jermaine O’Neal and Shaquille O’Neal, as well as Krstic, to replace Perkins. The move turned out to be a failure, as neither O’Neal proved healthy enough to play consistent minutes and Krstic tailed off after an early spurt.
The Celtics lost part of their soul in Perkins, their true enforcer whose scowl became as prominent as his no-nonsense personality and his low-post defense. He was drafted as a pudgy 18-year-old from Clifton J. Ozen High School in Beaumont, Texas. He spent his first season working himself into shape, becoming a professional and adapting to the NBA life before emerging as the starter.
For five-plus seasons, Perkins was the anchor of the Celtics’ defense, using his burly frame, fearlessness, and improving skills to emerge as one of the league’s top defenders at center. And those working-class Bostonians identified with Perkins’s style and toughness.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said just last week how his team lacks toughness; Perkins is now the defensive anchor of the 11-2 Thunder.
“That will be tough for me, that will be different,’’ Rivers said about seeing Perkins on the other side. “Perkins is a Celtic. I don’t [care] what uniform he has on. He’s a Celtic for life. And he knows that.’’
Perkins said he still talks with Rivers twice a week and assumes that it wasn’t Rivers who urged Ainge to trade him. It was Ainge’s call, and Rivers approached the deal with an “I hope you know what you’re doing’’ mentality with Ainge.
The ties between Perkins and the Celtics remain strong. He was given a standing ovation when he returned to Harvard for Rajon Rondo’s charity game in November.
“It means a lot,’’ Perkins said when told of Rivers’s comment about being a Celtic. “Me and Doc’s relationship goes a long way. He’s been my coach since I was 18. We got a different type of relationship.’’
The trade stunned many NBA observers who felt Perkins was by far the team’s best defender and the player who best exemplified Rivers’s defensive philosophy. The thought was that losing Perkins would change the tempo and style of the team; the Celtics no longer would be grinders, as a timid Krstic or a one-legged Jermaine O’Neal didn’t have nearly the defensive presence of Perkins.
“It was a business move and that’s what happened,’’ Perkins said. “You never know what was going on. You never know whose call it was. I strongly believe that it wasn’t Doc’s call. You never know if it came from ownership or what.
“I don’t ever wish bad for them. I watch all their games, wish that they do good, because I grew up with those guys - KG [Kevin Garnett], Paul [Pierce], and the relationship I have with Rondo. It’s not like I have a grudge or anything like that. There’s no bad blood.’’
Rondo took the trade harder than anyone in the organization. He appeared miserable in the days after the deal, his play suffered, and he walked around as if he lost his best friend - because he did.
“He was down, he told me about it,’’ Perkins said. “I told him he still had a job to do. He can’t just give up because me and him went separate ways. Me and him are still going to be close friends, that’s not going to change. I knew it had an effect on him. It had an effect on me also. It took me a while to get over it.’’
The two still talk several times per week.
“That’s a long time ago,’’ Rondo said. “Our relationship hasn’t changed. I didn’t lose him. He’s not dead. He’s not with me on a daily basis. It’s not a bad thing as you look at it overall because we’re still best friends.’’
The fans will have an opportunity tonight to show Perkins how much they appreciated his efforts. He has become a crowd favorite in Oklahoma City, this time as a veteran leader instead of the little brother role he filled in Boston.
“It wasn’t an easy process, but the whole city embraced me when I got to Oklahoma,’’ Perkins said. “It’s no hard feelings towards anybody in Boston. I had eight wonderful years here.
“Things happen, man, you know life moves on. I’ve been thinking the last three or four days how I am going to approach the situation and sometimes you got to put your pride aside, so if I get emotional, I get emotional.’’Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashburn14.