About half an hour before the Celtics tipped off Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the TD Garden fans were informed on the JumboTron that Kendrick Perkins was officially back and would make his season debut. Then minutes before game time, to their confusion, Semih Erden was introduced as the team's starting center.
It took a minute to process. Perkins, the starting center that had taken the Celtics on three consecutive deep playoff runs, would be coming off the bench.
It was his first game outside the starting five since Feb. 26, 2007. His previous 258 games had been starts. Not since the dark days in Celtic history, before Kevin Garnett came around, when Perk was fighting for minutes with Al Jefferson and Ryan Gomes, had he filled the role of "sixth man."
But he did it on Tuesday night, and admirably so. Perk came off the bench at the 8:02 mark of the first quarter, he snapped into midseason form right away, and he had seven points and six boards by the time the dust had settled. He finished with 17 minutes to his name; Erden played 17 of his own.
For the moment, this is Perk's role. He's a very capable defensive big man, healthy and fundamentally sound, but he can't be leaned upon for major minutes. Doc Rivers will continue to exercise caution for the time being, and that means a lot more 17-minute nights.
Perk won't be starting anytime soon. Either Erden will hold down the fort, or Shaquille O'Neal will take over once he comes back, likely this weekend. For the next few weeks, expect to see Perk come off the bench as the second-stringer.
But that's not where he belongs long-term.
In the long run, Perkins is the best center the Celtics have. He's going to be physical on defense, he's going to crash the boards, and he's going to be unselfish offensively and keep the ball moving. On both ends, he's going to work hard and communicate well. He's a system guy — for the last three years, he's fit perfectly alongside Garnett in Rivers' schemes, and the C's have no reason to mess with what works.
If you're pulling for the Celtics to hoist a banner this spring, then you want Perk on the floor when it matters most. On defense, he's going to help the C's string together stops and win close ballgames; and on offense, hey. At least there's no such thing as Hack-a-Perk.
This is a long-term plan. The Celtics take on Los Angeles, Dallas, Orlando and Miami all within the next three weeks, all big games as regular-season contests go. But the C's aren't concerned with having Perk dial it up in February.
For the foreseeable future, Erden and O'Neal will hold down the starting center job, and Perk will dutifully fill in the cracks. But down the road, Perk's the guy. Come June, there will be no confusion.
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