The return of Al Jefferson

Al Jefferson returns to Boston Sunday night for only the third time since he was traded to Minnesota in 2007 as part of the package that brought Kevin Garnett (and, summarily, a 17th NBA championship) to the Celtics.

Given the Timberwolves' struggles (51-140 over the past two-plus seasons) and Jefferson's recovery from a torn ACL, it would be hard for anyone to argue against the move from the Boston perspective.

But the return of Jefferson and Ryan Gomes -- the only two non-draft acquired pieces of that five-player, two-pick package remaining in Minnesota -- always seems to leave Celtics fans a little wistful thinking of what could have been.

After all, Jefferson is still just 24 (he'll turn 25 in January), and, even as he recovers from the knee injury that sidelined him late last season, he's one of the best young scoring centers in the league.

The last time he was in Boston, Jefferson erupted for 34 points on 15-of-21 shooting with 11 rebounds in a 109-101 loss to the Celtics. Jefferson is 0-5 against his old team.

Despite Minnesota's struggles, one of the key matchups to watch Sunday evening will be Jefferson vs. Kendrick Perkins, two friends that grew up together as high school players thrust into the NBA spotlight. Both have blossomed in recent seasons.

"I prefer Al not score, that'd be terrific," joked Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "It's a tough matchup for Perk and for everybody. Al's a great offensive player, but Perk's a terrific defensive player. Usually defense wins those battles, so hopefully that's the case [Sunday]."

The development of Perkins is another reason few Celtics fans lament the loss of Jefferson. Perkins has doubled his career scoring average this season, averaging 12 points along with 7.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks this year.

While Gomes is currently sidelined by a high left ankle sprain sustained last Saturday against Sacramento, he too has developed into a quality NBA starter. The 6-foot-7 forward out of Providence was averaging 12 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists this season.

Celtics captain Paul Pierce, the elder statesman on those young Celtics teams that featured Jefferson and Gomes, thinks the two players have already become the faces of the Timberwolves.

"They're the team leaders right now on a young ballclub," said Pierce. "I've been in that position before. There's growing pains and guys have to figure it out. It takes time, but they'll get it."