Perkins prepares for 'emotional' return

BOSTON -- He'll be No. 5 in Oklahoma City blue, orange and white -- and you may indeed need a scorecard to recognize Kendrick Perkins. He, not Charles Barkley, should be doing the ads for Weight Watchers.

Perkins is lean -- some 37 pounds lost, according to one report -- and, he says, still capable of being mean. Nonetheless, as he prepared to face his former team Monday night at TD Garden for the first time since being traded almost 11 months ago, he admitted to being a bit wistful about returning to Boston to play the Celtics.

"It will be emotional, I'm sure," Perkins said Monday at the Thunder morning shoot. "But you have to remind yourself where you are and remember that it's a basketball game. You had friendships with these guys, so it's hard. But I'm going to have to put my scowl on because I'm pretty sure KG [Kevin Garnett] is going to have his scowl on."

His former coach, Doc Rivers, said he didn't care what uniform Perkins wore, that Perkins would always be a Celtic for life. His former teammates, with whom Perkins stays in constant touch, also have had nothing but good things to say about him.

"It means a lot,'' Perkins said. "I still got a close relationship with Doc. I got a close relationship with [Rajon] Rondo, KG, Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen]. When you win a championship together, you have a bond that no one can break. You can't break that bond.

"I got a great bond with the guys here [in Oklahoma City] also. So you leave one great situation and go to another great situation. Not too many guys in the league get that opportunity. I didn't take it for granted when I was here. I don't take it for granted where I'm at now, either."

How could anyone not have anything but good things to say about Kendrick Perkins? He's the unselfish, true teammate, great role player right out of Central Casting. OK, he sets too many illegal screens and he can be a hothead. But his teammates love him. He's as popular with his new team as he was with his old team.

"He stands behind me 100 percent,'' said Thunder franchise forward Kevin Durant. "If I miss 10 shots in a row, he's going to pass it to me so I can take that 11th shot. That's the type of support a player needs."

Thunder GM Sam Presti, Massachusetts bred and educated, said he loves Perkins' reliability. "You saw him come back early [from knee surgery]. That's who he is,'' Presti said. "He works hard. The stuff he does doesn't show up on the stat sheet. He has a lot of the DNA makeup that we look for in people."

Perkins left a team thinking it had a legitimate chance to win an NBA title (and maybe it did) and is now playing for a team with a legitimate chance to win an NBA title (no debate there). He's starting, still rounding into shape following last season, when he was still rehabbing and then found himself traded in midseason.

He's still not 100 percent; doctors routinely say it takes two calendar years to recover from the kind of serious knee injury (torn ACL in his right knee) that Perkins had. He suffered it in June 2010. The surgery came in July and he missed the first 43 games of the 2010-11 season. He dropped all the weight, he said, to take the pressure off his knees.

"I did it over the summer and through the lockout because I wanted to come back healthy," he said. "Last year, I just wasn't myself, physically. It was a new team and I wasn't 100 percent. I'm still not there totally, but I'm getting close. And I haven't lost any strength. I'm what you call country strong."

He follows his old team, helped by almost daily dialogue with Rondo and frequent chats with Pierce and Garnett. He said it was strange to watch them in the playoffs last season, but that he unhesitatingly pulled for them.

As for this year's group, well, let's say he put on his Benjamin Franklin cap and played the diplomat role as well as he plays the center position.

"They're gonna be good. They're gonna make the playoffs,'' he said. "Whatever team they gotta face, I feel sorry for that team. I say they'll hit their stride by late February. Going into April, I see them run off about 10, 11 games in a row and sneak into the 7-, 6-spot and make some noise in the playoffs. That's what I believe."

Clearly, he hasn't seen the Celtics' schedule. He may not have been watching them play lately, either.

"They'll be all right,'' he said, unconvincingly.

Perkins is only 27, but is playing in his ninth NBA season. On the young, Thunder team, Perkins calls himself "a big brother" and says he plays the same role in Oklahoma City that Garnett, Pierce and Allen played when he was in Boston. The only problem for Perkins: This leadership stuff doesn't come naturally.

"My role on the floor hasn't changed, but I feel like I have to be more of a leader,'' he said. "I still text Paul and KG for advice on how to lead, how to approach certain situations. That is all new to me.''

You'd almost think that Pierce and Garnett would have Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" as a ringtone for when Perkins calls. They miss him. Rondo acted like his dog died after the trade. (Perkins and Rondo dined Sunday night, but had little news to impart to each other because they talk so frequently.)

For a guy who was the fifth option on the floor, who had trouble with his free throws and who got hit with way too many technicals, Perkins has proved to be borderline indispensable in hindsight. The Celtics just have not been the same team since he left.

Longtime NBA writer Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.