BOSTON -- When the NBA lockout ended last month, Kendrick Perkins found himself searching the Thunder schedule for one game in particular: Jan. 16, Oklahoma City's lone trip to Boston.
"I'd be lying if I told you I didn't look for it," Perkins said in a telephone interview. "With the short season, I didn't know if we would be going back there. I'm looking forward to it."
It has been 11 months since Boston shipped Perkins to Oklahoma City, breaking up the core of a team that, when healthy, Perkins reminds a reporter, never lost a playoff series. The decision to trade Perkins was financially motivated: Under the former collective bargaining agreement, the Celtics could offer Perkins only a four-year, $22 million extension. He declined. Boston could have increased its offer in the offseason but with the exploding center market -- witness the four-year, $56 million deal Tyson Chandler signed with New York or the four-year, $43 million contract DeAndre Jordan inked with the Clippers last month -- the front office was unwilling to commit major money to an offensively limited center coming off a major knee injury.
While the trade came as a shock to many, Perkins says he saw it coming.
"I kind of expected it a little bit," Perkins said. "Out of the five starters, I was the only one who wasn't an All-Star. I was coming off an ACL injury and they were winning without me. When I was hurt Shaq and Jermaine [O'Neal], they played well. I think they wondered 'Is he really that valuable to the team?' They probably underestimated what I do, the little things that I do, on the court. Not my teammates or the coaches, but ownership, they probably did think it was easy to do what I was doing for the team."
Turns out, it wasn't. With both O'Neal's battling injuries in the second half of the season, Boston stumbled. The Celtics finished as the third seed and swept the Knicks in the first round but were eliminated by Miami in five games in the conference semifinals.
"Removing Perk from our team pulled away some of our armor," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "It allowed other teams see us as vulnerable, that they could beat us. Over the summer I heard from people in Orlando and Miami saying things like 'Perk's gone, now we can beat them.'"
The Thunder saw Perkins as a perfect fit, a young (27), defensive-minded center who valued winning over statistics and could grow with the team's young core. And they weren't about to let Perkins get away. Oklahoma City locked him up with a four-year extension worth nearly $35 million before he ever played a game.
The Thunder were able to offer a better deal than Boston thanks to a loophole in the CBA. On the same day they acquired Perkins, the Thunder executed a trade with Charlotte that sent Morris Peterson and D.J. White to the Bobcats for Nazr Mohammed. That trade, coupled with sending Jeff Green to Boston for Perkins, cleared an extra $2 million in cap space. The Thunder used that room to give Perkins a raise for the rest of last season, which in turn enabled the team to offer him more money in a long-term deal.
On the floor, Perkins meshed instantly. Despite battling a sprained left knee and continuing to rehab the torn ACL in his right knee he suffered in the 2010 Finals, in addition to being 25 pounds over his normal playing weight, Perkins was a key contributor in Oklahoma City's surprising playoff run. He banged bodies with Denver's Nene in the opening round, mixed it up with Memphis' Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the semifinals and matched up with Chandler, then with Dallas, in the conference finals. Overnight, Perkins transformed the Thunder from a finesse team to a physical one.
"I give Perk a lot of credit," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Not a lot of NBA players would play when they weren't 100 percent. And he wasn't. But we needed him. He doesn't back down from anyone. He's not interested in making friends with anyone. And Perk is not pseudo tough. I played with the Knicks, with Charles Oakley. He was a tough guy. Perk's a lot like that. It's how he is wired. He has to be able to compete that way, bring that toughness. That's how he survives."
After the season, Perkins vowed to lose 20 pounds. He hired a nutritionist and a personal trainer and worked out three hours a day, often seven days a week. He lost 31 pounds, reporting to training camp a svelte 267 pounds.
"When I saw a picture of him I said 'Wow, James Harden looks good,'" Rivers said. "I couldn't believe it was Perk."
Slimmed down and healthy, Perkins has been a force. Through 13 games he's averaged 5.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in 26.5 minutes per game but, as it's always been with Perkins, numbers don't tell the whole story. Thunder officials rave about how Perkins jaw-rattling screens have created space for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. After Oklahoma City's win over New York on Friday, Knicks forward Billy Walker remarked how difficult it was to chase Durant around the Thunder big man.
Brooks praises Perkins' versatility. Last season, an immobile Perkins was limited to defending centers. This season, Brooks hasn't hesitated to play him on power forwards. Against the Knicks, Perkins took turns defending Amar'e Stoudemire, limiting the All-Star forward to 14 points on 7-of-19 shooting.
"[Perkins] is moving so much better," Brooks said. "He gets from box to box faster. No one should be surprised. This guy is an incredibly hard worker."
Indeed, Perkins has always had a strong work ethic. In Boston, he held the team record for the fastest time in the five-mile bike ride for years before Brian Scalabrine finally beat it in 2010. When Perkins saw Scalabrine's name on the white board in the weight room he was, according to Scalabrine, "mad at me for days." Last week, with the Thunder immersed in a three-games-in-four-nights stretch, Brooks tried to give Perkins a break by splitting the drills with Nick Collison. Perkins got so angry, Brooks said, "I thought he was going to fight me."
"Getting him to ease up is like pulling teeth," Brooks said. "He wants to do everything."
Perkins admits coming back to Boston is bittersweet. He's happy in Oklahoma City ("Our locker room is locked in," Perkins said) but admits a part of him believes those Celtics teams had unfinished business.
"There's always going to be a 'what if' in me," Perkins said. "We never lost a playoff series. You wish you could have had a chance to redeem yourself with the team but it's a business, and it has been good be able to come to another great situation. But the 'what if' is always in the back of your mind."
Perkins says he has thought a lot about how he will be received by the Boston crowd.
"I'm kind of nervous," Perkins said. "I don't know what to expect. It's not like I have been around the league. I came there as an 18-year-old out of high school and was a Celtic for eight years. We went through the good times, the bad times, and the city really embraced me. I got close to a lot of people in that city and it was really hard to leave.
"Going back for the first time, I don't know what to expect. My approach is I want to win the game, but at the same time it is kind of hard with so many friends on the other side. Can I really be Perk out there? Can I really play my style? [Kevin Garnett] is my mentor. Ray [Allen] and Paul [Pierce] are my friends. Doc, we have a father-son relationship. [Rajon] Rondo, we talk every day. It's going to be hard."
Playing the game may be tough, but Perkins should rest easy about his reception. As much as he embraced Boston, the city, the fans embraced the blue-collar Perkins right back. The Celtics have planned a pre-game tribute and its likely Perkins will receive the loudest ovation for a visiting player since Robert Parish returned with the Hornets in 1995. Perkins may wear blue now, but the city will always remember him in green.
"He's just masquerading in another uniform," Rivers said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's a Celtic for the rest of his life."