Kendrick Perkins back at perfect time

BOSTON -- There was Danny Ainge, taking the podium after the game and announcing arthroscopic knee surgery for Jermaine O'Neal. The man they call "J.O." might be back for the playoffs.

There was Kendrick Perkins, standing by his locker after the game, ice bags on both knees after posting a double-double in 32-plus minutes. It was just his sixth game since he returned following major reconstructive knee surgery.

By all accounts, he is back. No qualifier is needed.

It was a weird bit of center asymmetry following the Boston Celtics' tough 101-97 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night. The Celtics lost a center they've never really had. The news on O'Neal was hardly surprising. He has been hurt all year.

But Perkins? Who expected something like this just seven months after surgery to repair a torn ACL and MCL? He looked like the Perk of Yore, even getting the obligatory offensive foul on a screen set 30 feet from the basket. He had 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting. He grabbed 12 rebounds. He blocked a shot. All in the first of what will be many more starts of the 2010-11 season.

"It felt really good to be out there with all the guys again,'' Perkins said, acknowledging the rush from being announced as a starter with the other four Celtics -- all All Stars. "We've been together for four years."

Well, three, really. You can take away a half-season for Kevin Garnett in 2009 and take away the half season Perk lost rehabbing following his surgery. But as Doc Rivers is quick to point out, the Celtics have never lost a playoff series when his preferred Fab Five is healthy and playing.

And Perkins, after months of rehabilitation and the patience of Job, is back, ahead of schedule.

"It really is a great story,'' Celtics general manager Ainge said of Perkins. "He's motivated and determined. He has been that way since the first day he showed up here [after] we drafted him. I don't think anyone is surprised that he put the work in. To have the significant surgery he had, to be back doing what he did and then to be playing with the confidence he's had right out of the gate is impressive.

"It's been a great surprise for us."

To which Perkins agreed.

"Yeah, I'm surprised,'' he said. "But I also know how hard I worked to get to this point. I am happy the way it has turned out."

With Perkins back, the Celtics' starting five Friday night was the one we've come to know and expect these past four years. It should be the same going forward. Shaquille O'Neal is out again (sore right leg this time), so Perkins moved into the starting rotation almost by default. What was more revealing was that Doc Rivers played him for so long -- his previous high was 28 minutes against the Lakers -- and played him all but the final 2.5 seconds of the fourth quarter. Usually Rivers goes with Glen Davis down the stretch for offensive reasons.

"But I thought Perk defensively was so good for us in that one stretch that we stayed with him,'' Rivers said.

Since his surprising return on Jan. 25, Perkins' time on the floor has gradually increased. He played 17 minutes in his debut against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He almost doubled that Friday night. He said he caught a "second wind" later in the game.

"I was just out there trying as hard as I could,'' Perkins said. "I gave my 100 percent. It was all I could do. I'm a little mad at a couple turnovers I had [there were four of them, but one was the aforementioned offensive foul]. ... I'm just happy to be out there playing."

And so are his teammates. They have watched Perkins work his way back from the devastating knee surgery suffered in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals. They saw, as he did, the influx of new, big bodies on the scene with the additions of Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Semih Erden.

But all of them, including Perkins, knew that the starting position was on loan until Perkins was able to play again. Whoever was starting -- and all three of them did in Perkins' absence -- was just keeping the seat warm.

"A lot of it is not just physical. It's more mental than anything,'' Kevin Garnett said, when asked Friday night about Perkins' comeback. "Him not understanding or not knowing his place with the additions of Shaq and J.O. And [then] him coming in and giving us the big contributions like he did [against Dallas].

"He is only going to get better,'' Garnett went on. "I'm just happy for him. That's not an easy thing to go through. It takes more wear on you mentally than physically. I'm happy for him. Very happy for him."

No one was happy about the outcome Friday night. But everyone was happy with what they saw in No. 43. In the big picture, that is exponentially more critical.

And with one O'Neal out and the other about to go under the knife, Perkins' return couldn't come at a more opportune time. The hope is that all the big men will be ready for the playoffs. But for the time being, get used to seeing more of Perkins. He's fine with that. He's come this far. He's not about to turn back now.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.