About an hour before the Celtics  were to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers , Kendrick Perkins  rolled through the locker room and found about 20 reporters congregating by his locker. Someone asked if he had lobbied coach Doc Rivers  to play Tuesday night, 10 days ahead of his scheduled target date of Feb. 4. “I probably did,” he said with a smile as he tried to deflect the obvious: He’s back.
Perkins returns about seven months after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during Game 6 of the NBA finals  and about six months after having surgery. It’s been quite a turnaround for Perkins, who had his first live practice on Jan. 16 . As late as Monday, Rivers said he wouldn’t rush Perkins back , even with injuries keeping both Shaquille O’Neal  (hip) and Jermaine O’Neal  (knee) out of the lineup.
Later that night, team trainer Eddie Lacerte and team doctor Brian McKeon told Rivers that Perkins was ready.
“I didn’t think he’d play on this [upcoming west coast] trip, but it wasn’t a big surprise when they walked in,” Rivers said. “When they came in together I knew what they were coming in for, so I was all for it.”
Perkins won’t start yet and Rivers said he was on a restriction on 12-16 minutes. “It’s going to take Perk some time,” Rivers said. “Listen, you don’t miss the amount of games that he’s missed and have the injury that he has and think that because he’s going to play tonight he’s going to be the Perk that you saw the last time.”
Still, with the injuries to the O’Neal’s (Shaq may return Friday, Jermaine O’Neal is out until after the All-Star break) his return has become an important component of the second half of the season. Rivers has not been able to develop a bench with all the injuries affecting various members of the second unit.
For now, Perkins adds depth at a position that needs some, but once he’s able to work his back into the starting lineup he’ll allow Rivers the flexibility to use Shaq and Glen Davis  off the bench.
“It’s just another piece we’re adding is the way I’m looking at it,” Rivers said. “That’s great for us. The healthier we can get, the better we can get, the more consistent we can become and we can start rolling. It’s tough to grow as a team when half your team, or at least your bench, is not playing.”
Perkins’ teammates were obviously thrilled with the development. They have been impressed with how hard he’s worked. Perkins said last week that he has lost eight pounds and he appears trimmer and in better shape than when he was injured.
“I’m just hoping he doesn’t foul out in those 16 minutes,” Rivers joked. “Which is very likely.”