Perk Takes Big Step in Journey Toward Return

WALTHAM, Mass. - Who would have thought that the first 20 minutes of a December practice could hold so much significance?

A feeling of surrealism passed through approximately 100 onlookers as the Boston Celtics began Tuesday's open practice in Waltham, Mass., with their entire frontcourt intact. For the first time this season, Kendrick Perkins was included in that 'entire frontcourt' group.

Kendrick Perkins

Kendrick Perkins has been working hard to return to the court since his devastating knee injury in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Tuesday, he took a big step in the journey back to the court.

Perkins underwent arthroscopic knee ligament reconstruction with meniscal repair during the offseason and, to this point, has been nothing but an eager giant waiting to break down the wall on the court between he and his teammates. The 6-foot-10 center has essentially been limited to working out with coaches - and without teammates - before games and after practices for the past few weeks. Those sessions pale in comparison to the Shaq-sized step he took today.

Practice began with a strength and conditioning segment that Doc Rivers said Perkins hadn't participated in to this point. To the outsiders, though, that wasn't the surprising part. What shocked most of the media members watching from high above the court was the fact that Perkins continued practicing alongside his teammates when they moved into the skeleton offense portion of the practice, which is essentially full-speed basketball without contact.

"I went through the dummy 'O' a little bit, the dummy offense with the guys, just got up and down a little bit," said Perkins after practice. "Felt pretty good, but just went over the plays with the guys, got a little rhythm. It was good to be out there."

It was great for him personally, but even a greater step for the team as a whole. It's no secret that the Celtics' frontcourt has been hit by a hurricane of injuries this season, with Perkins, Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Semih Erden all having suffered serious injuries. Today, however, all four of them were participating alongside Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis for the first time ever.

Rivers, who has had to manage the team through the injury landmines, had to be one of the more encouraged onlookers in the gym. He acknowledged after practice how nice it was to watch his starting center take such a big step.

"Yeah, Perk looked good for what he did, actually dunked a couple of times today so, that's good," said Rivers. "He's in great shape, that's the one thing, and he's worked so hard."

That hard work was evident when Perkins made his way up to the treadmill station looking over the practice court while the rest of his teammates began contact drills on the court. At approximately seven MPH, he cycled through about 10 minutes of training. Perkins followed Boston's regular conditioning routine of 20 seconds of running followed by 40 seconds of rest, and eventually 15 seconds of running followed by 45 seconds of rest as a cool down.

Being in top physical shape is only one of the aspects that play a monumental role in a comeback attempt like Perk's. As Rivers said, what may be more critical is the mental rehabilitation.

"You know the mental part is when he comes back is how much he actually trusts his leg, you know, that will be [huge]," remarked Rivers. "Listen, if we can get anything out of Perk this year, we'll be thrilled, obviously. I mean I know he's gonna play, but it usually takes a year after the surgery to be completely confident. Some people break the barrier earlier, Wes Welker being one, but Tom Brady took a year. You know, he was good last year, he's the MVP this year."

The Celtics have a similar example to Brady in the form of Garnett. It's clear that, now more than a year removed from 2009 offseason knee surgery, KG has returned to his customary play that simply wasn't in the cards last season. He doesn't need to think about what his knee can and can't do this season, because he knows he can do it all.

Perkins cautions not to believe a similar comeback will accompany him. After all, comparing the two surgeries is like apples and oranges, and he believes the same can be said about he and Garnett.

"Believe it or not, me and KG are mentally different," said Perkins. "You know, KG is really the type, he'll take his time getting back. I'm kind of a guy who'll push to get back quicker. That's the difference between me and him."

While he believes his comeback will be much sharper, even he was taken aback by the confidence he displayed this afternoon. There were no conscious worries – it was simply basketball.

"No, I wasn't, not today," Perkins responded after being asked if he caught himself thinking about the knee while running through plays. "That was kind of surprising. A couple of times I ran like a pick-and-roll and went up on a dunk and didn't even think about it. I thought about it after I did it, you know, like, 'Hmm, I might be all right after all.'"

If he's already all right in that regard, there's no doubt that he's ahead of the game. You would think that such confidence would lead the big man to believe he's further along the road of recovery than expected, possibly leading to a pre-All-Star break return. But as he noted, his expectations were not such, at least until his doctors placed that thought in his head.

"Nah, actually [athletic trainer Ed Lacerte's] was earlier (than mine)," said Perkins of an estimated return. "I thought it was like a little bit after the All-Star break, but he was thinking like late January, early February. So I'm just going to see how it goes and see how my knee responds to, you know, just picking up extra activity and just go from there."

Today's return to non-contact drills was a monumental step in his return to the lineup, even if it was just for 20 minutes. The Celtics will be a different team when Perkins is healthy and playing in games, no doubt. They certainly looked different on the practice court today when they got the slightest taste of a fully-intact frontcourt.

It may have been faint, but that taste couldn't have been any sweeter.