- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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WALTHAM, Mass. -- If it wasn't the truth, it might have been regarded as a bit of trash talking.
But Celtics center Kendrick Perkins said what everyone else has been thinking when he noted Saturday that the Cavaliers are a better team without Shaquille O'Neal.
"In my opinion, I think they're better [without Shaq]," Perkins said in advance of Sunday's showdown (ABC, 3:30 p.m.) at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. "They can run more and they've got Anderson Varejao, who's more of an active body. They can get LeBron [James] open a lot and open up the paint for him, so I think they're a better team. Obviously, Shaq can help them, but I think they're better, a more fast-paced team [without him]."
Unfortunately for Perkins, he has a body of work to support his argument. Despite being regarded as one of the top defensive centers in the league (Orlando All-Star Dwight Howard positioned Perkins one spot ahead of himself as part of a list detailing the best defensive players in the league earlier this season), no player is as much of a thorn in Perkins' side as Varejao.
After O'Neal injured his right thumb in last month's battle at the TD Garden, Varejao came off the bench to connect on 6-of-7 shots for 14 points with 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists in 31 minutes. His play helped the Cavaliers register a 30-point swing, as the visitors erased a double-digit first-half deficit and stormed to a 108-88 win.
So how exactly is it that O'Neal, the former first overall pick who is the No. 5 scorer in NBA history, is somehow easier to defend than Varejao, the third-to-last pick in the 2004 NBA draft, best known for being floppy (both in his hairstyle and charge-taking)?
"He's more of an instigator," said Perkins. "You have to be more of an instigator when you play against him. You gotta hit him first. He's a guy who flops and gets a lot of calls. He takes charges and gets offensive rebounds. You have to keep a body on him and play hard against him.
"You gotta take him out of the game. ... He's a big energy guy and that helps them a lot."
Perkins' defense will be crucial Sunday, because not only will he see plenty of Varejao and second-year power forward J.J. Hickson, but without Shaq under the basket (and with newly acquired Antawn Jamison stretching the floor), it's likely the bigs will have to help limit the penetration of James and his backcourt mates.
But containing Varejao might be the key. On opening night in Cleveland, with the 6-foot-11 big man starting at power forward, Boston limited him to 3-of-9 shooting for nine points with seven rebounds, two steals and a block. He was a minus-6 overall in 33 minutes as Boston rallied for a 95-89 triumph.
At the other end of the floor, the Celtics would also benefit from more of the outstanding offensive play that Perkins showcased Friday night against the Indiana Pacers.
Not only did he set a bevy of crunching screens that sprung Boston's shooters (leading Rivers to dub him a "human pick machine" after the game), but Perkins also connected on 4 of 6 shots for 10 points with seven rebounds, an assist and a block over 23 minutes.
Despite leading the league in field goal percentage (61 percent), Perkins' stats had slipped dramatically in March and Rivers felt the big man finally let his instincts take over Friday.
"Perk was phenomenal," said Rivers. "When Perk gets into the role he played [Friday], where he didn't think about the offense at all, he gets dunks and layups. When he thinks about the offense, it gets tough. But when he does his job -- sets picks, runs the floor, and rebounds -- all of a sudden the offense comes to him and he's usually the guy under the basket by himself."
While Perkins' play has been under the microscope, with some pundits going so far as to suggest replacing him in the starting lineup with Rasheed Wallace, Rivers defended his big man, noting that his role has been ever-changing based on the injuries the Celtics have endured.
"What I think we all forget is that, really, after the Christmas Day game [against Orlando], that's when the injuries started," said Rivers. "Roles changed. Kevin [Garnett] goes down, Paul [Pierce] goes down. So we used Perk in different ways. We were trying to get him the ball more in order to create a post offense. When guys came back, it was tough to get back into the old role.
"People don't realize how different it is when injuries happen. We're starting to get back to the way we were. We're not there yet, but we're getting back."
Boston is a mere 18-18 over its past 36 games and is jockeying with Atlanta for the third spot in the Eastern Conference entering the home stretch. But the Celtics' eyes remain on the ultimate prize, and Sunday's game against the team with the league's best record could help judge Boston's recent progress (which amounts to a lopsided win over the lowly Pacers after a lopsided loss to the Grizzlies two days earlier).
"I look forward to the game, seeing exactly where we are at," said Perkins. "We're going out and competing against a great team, at home, the best in the NBA, and seeing where we are at. It would be a great confidence boost for us if we could go into their home building and get a win."
But asked later if he was surprised that Boston was now using Cleveland as a bit of a measuring stick, when it used to be the other way around, Perkins did what he does best -- he got defensive.
"In a way, but they still haven't won anything," said Perkins. "They're just the best team in the league. They haven't done anything we haven't done."
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
13hK. Lee Davis