It's the intangibles that we miss

BOSTON -- The moment was Kendrick Perkins in a nutshell.

During the first television timeout in Monday's Boston Celtics-Oklahoma City Thunder matchup, Boston paid tribute to its former center with a minute-long video that culminated with a shot of Perkins hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy inside a champagne-covered Celtics locker room in 2008 before three simple words appeared: "Thank you Perk."

Coming back onto the floor, with many players on both sides fixated on the screen, Perkins raised both hands to salute the TD Garden crowd as he was serenaded with a prolonged standing ovation.

But as he learned so harshly in February -- when he was dealt to Oklahoma City with Nate Robinson at the trade deadline in exchange for Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic and a future first-round draft pick -- this is a business and you have to leave your emotions on the sideline.

So as the crowd continued to roar, Perkins gave one final wave near midcourt, then walked toward where the action was set to resume, doing what he does best: barking at a referee about a previous foul call.

Welcome back, Perk. We missed you.

Perkins had a modest night -- 7 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block over 28 minutes. Maybe a little too wired at the start of Monday's game, he committed three first-half fouls in 13 scoreless minutes, but bounced back to chip in all seven of his points during a key stretch in the third quarter in which the Thunder kept a hard-charging Celtics squad at bay en route to a 97-88 triumph.

Masked by his familiar scowl was a player genuinely touched by his first trip back to the Garden.

"That [video] was unbelievable. You know I really appreciate it," Perkins said. "I say this time and time again, I really appreciate the whole city of Boston [and] the whole Celtics organization. Just the way that they embraced me, time and time again. [Drafted] out of high school, to who I developed into as a player now. I just want to let them know I really appreciate it.

"They didn't have to do [the video]. It ain't like they just put some nonsense together. They didn't have to do it. I'm not taking it for granted. I want to let people know I greatly appreciate it."

Maybe we all took Perkins for granted, too. Maybe we didn't appreciate him enough. With all the talk about the "big four," Perkins was sometimes simply the other starter who often provided more scowls and technical fouls than points.

But maybe we underestimated his intangibles -- like leadership, something that clearly rubbed off on him from his time spent with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

Perkins trimmed down dramatically last summer, so much so that when Celtics coach Doc Rivers saw a picture of him during the offseason, he swears he thought it was James Harden (the beard should have given that away). Rivers raved about Perkins' newfound quickness -- albeit with a jab about traveling -- after Monday's game, but also saw familiar strains of big Perk.

"His influence on that team is dramatic," Rivers said. "You can see it, you can feel it. You can see it with the bigs -- they are all defensive players now. Perk has completely changed the culture of that team, you can just see it on the floor.

"There was [a missed rotation] on the floor today and [Perkins] was screaming at [Kevin] Durant, and Durant took it."

Durant may be one of the league's brightest young stars -- maybe second only to LeBron James at this point -- but he clearly understands what Perkins brings to this team, having brought a championship pedigree from Boston. The Thunder have so much young talent, but they lean on Perkins for guidance.

And, truth be told, Perkins was as rattled as he's ever been on a basketball court on Monday. He admitted he didn't sleep much after the Thunder arrived in town on Sunday, overly anxious about what lied ahead.

He didn't leave the team hotel after Monday's morning shootaround, which had more to do with trying to get his head right than the bitter cold in the region.

"To be honest, I [didn't know what to expect Monday], I was confused," Perkins said. "The whole day I was confused. … 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 guys. I didn'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 seemed most at ease after the game once the media disappeared. He dressed in his suit, then made a dash across the hall to drop into the Celtics' training room, where two of his closest former teammates, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo, were hanging out.

When Paul Pierce, on his way out of the building, got word Perk was in the room, he rushed to join them.

If only for a few moments, it was like old times. And that clearly wasn't lost on Perkins, who still claimed an emotional attachment to the Celtics.

"I love Oklahoma, but just being here for eight years and winning a championship -- it's hard to replace," he said. "Just from what I learned [and experienced], it's still got a special place in my heart here."

And Celtics fans maintain a special place for him. Even though it wasn't all cheers Monday night. Rondo had raced at Perkins on a fast break early in the first quarter and, out of instinct, Perkins wrapped him up and took him hard to the floor.

"It's nothing where I was trying to do something crazy, I just couldn't let him score on me," Perkins said with a shrug.

The fans booed the play, but only out of habit. And maybe only because it reminded them of what they lost when Perkins got traded away. That toughness is something the Celtics desperately miss.

And it reinforced that, between the lines, Perkins is all business.

Chris Forsberg covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.