Early in last night’s game, the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo drove to the basket, and Thunder center Kendrick Perkins flattened the speedy point guard.
Perkins, formerly Rondo’s teammate in Boston, and his best friend, immediately rushed to help up Rondo.
But once the game started, no one, not even Rondo, was immune to Perkins’s punishing post presence. It was Perkins’s first game against the Celtics since his controversial trade to Oklahoma City in February 2011.
It was an emotional night for the big center. He was the final Thunder starter introduced, and he received a standing ovation from the Garden crowd.
After the first timeout, the Celtics showed a video montage of Perkins’s best moments in Boston. He received another standing O and raised both arms in acknowledgement.
Perkins, whose first season with the team was 2003-04, became a dependable starter and helped the club win the 2008 NBA title.
He said he was anxious about the potential reaction.
“To be honest, I don’t know. I was confused,’’ he said after the Thunder’s 97-88 victory. “The whole day I was confused, especially yesterday. I really didn’t know what to expect. Mentally I was just out of it. I didn’t know whether to shoot the ball, pass the ball, hug the guy. I ain’t know what to do. I’m just really glad it’s over.
“I’m just glad we play in two different conferences so I don’t have to keep going through this emotional breakdown.’’
Perkins picked up two first-quarter fouls, and (of course) argued the second one with official Pat Fraher. He said his teammates joked with him to remember not to set screens for Rondo, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce.
The Celtics have struggled without Perkins’s toughness but he said he is convinced his former team will reach the playoffs.
“They’re going to be good,’’ he said. “They’re making the playoffs and then whatever team they gotta face, I feel sorry for that team.
“I say they are going to hit their stride late February going into April and win 10 or 11 games in a row and sneak into the seventh or sixth [seed] and make some noise in the playoffs. That’s what I believe.’’
Overshadowed by the return of Perkins was the first NBA game in Boston for former Boston College standout Reggie Jackson, the Thunder first-round pick who has become their primary reserve point guard.
Jackson played 8 minutes last night, picking up two assists and a steal. He has gotten more playing time since Eric Maynor was lost for the season with a torn right ACL. Jackson said he is prepared for the increased role.
“It’s a little bit different, but good to be back in Boston,’’ he said before the game. “The NBA is different, especially this season, everything moves a lot quicker, a lot faster. It was tough [to replace Maynor] at first. You just have to come in and be yourself. It’s been great to see that we have been playing well already, but we can get a lot better.’’
Jackson is on a team with All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook - as well as Perkins and emerging swingman James Harden.
“It’s a lot different - you always envision yourself making it to this league, making it far, but actually playing with Durant, wow,’’ Jackson said. “I’ve played video games [featuring Durant]. When you practice with these guys and see how hard they work and see how down to earth he is, it’s great.’’
Wilcox out again
Chris Wilcox missed his second consecutive game with a left calf strain and said he aggravated the injury Friday night against the Bulls. Wilcox said he was kicked in the same spot during practice and was ailing but played anyway.
“I kept playing on it and it started hurting more every day,’’ he said. “I think I needed some rest on it and it’s starting to heal up a little bit but it hurts.’’
Wilcox said he is going to try to return Friday against the Suns. Wilcox scored a season-high 4 points in five minutes against the Bulls, including a streaking dunk off a Rondo fast-break pass.
“It’s very frustrating because I knew coming into the game I already had that little injury and I think I just set myself back by playing on it,’’ he said.
“That was a game that I probably needed to keep me going. From here on out, I just have to play with that energy. I finally got a chance to go out there and play for a little stretch.’’
Coach Doc Rivers talked Saturday with Wilcox about his role and playing more consistently.
“Knowing your position, your role, and what is expected, you know what to go out there and do,’’ Wilcox said. “That’s going to help me as well.”
No time to panic
Keyon Dooling missed his third consecutive game with a right knee strain but Rivers said he is not concerned yet. The coach said Dooling was expected to miss a week. He is likely to return Friday . . . Jermaine O’Neal was in the starting lineup for the second consecutive game after Rivers said O’Neal and Brandon Bass would alternate. O’Neal had 11 rebounds, and has 23 in the past two games. They were his first consecutive 10-plus rebound games in two years . . . E’Twaun Moore played eight minutes as the backup to Rondo, and Avery Bradley did not play. Rivers has promised to get Moore increased playing time because of his court savvy.