Even Without Shaquille O’Neal, Stopping Cavaliers’ Big Men is Tall Task For Celtics

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April 4, 2010

Even Without Shaquille O'Neal, Stopping Cavaliers' Big Men is Tall Task For Celtics Whenever the Celtics and Cavaliers get together, it tends to be small forwards that grab all the headlines.

When you've got LeBron James and Paul Pierce on the same floor, the fireworks are guaranteed to go off. It's a league MVP against an NBA Finals MVP in a battle of two great team leaders, and the last one to score has a mighty good shot at winning the ballgame. The King versus The Truth — can't do much better than that.

But sometimes the bigger story is the guys who are … well, bigger.

The Cavaliers have had an incredible revolving door of big men set in motion this season.

They traded for Shaquille O'Neal this past summer, only to see him go down with a torn thumb ligament and miss a significant chunk of the season. They relied a lot upon Anderson Varejao, but he's been on the shelf recently with a sore hamstring. They gave a big promotion this season to J.J. Hickson, a 21-year-old kid out of N.C. State with a post game and a dream.

Leon Powe battled back from ACL and knee injuries to finally make his Cavs debut in Boston on Feb. 25. Cleveland picked up Antawn Jamison at the trading deadline in mid-February. They traded Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the Wizards in February, watched him get bought out, and quickly welcomed him back into the fold.

Through all of these changes to the Cavs' big man corps, it's been Shaq who's garnered the most media attention with his absence. When you're an MVP and a 15-time All-Star, that tends to happen. But the spotlight's been on Shaq for another reason, too: His presence changes the identity of the Cavaliers unlike anyone else on the roster, save for of course LeBron.

Look at the Cavs' big men and ask yourself — which of these is not like the other? On a team loaded with athletic, energetic, quick big men, Shaq is the one exception. He's old, slow and muscular. He's not there to be an "energy guy" in the Varejao mold — he's there to be big and tough, muscling up against other Eastern Conference bigs like Dwight Howard.

But against the league at large, the Shaq attack has come out flat. Consider this stat: With the Big Aristotle on the floor, the Cavaliers are 40-13, a .755 winning percentage. Without him, they're 20-3, or .870.

Without Shaquille O'Neal, the Cavs would be on pace to be a 71-win team, one of the best ever to play the game. With him, they're… well, mortal.

Kendrick Perkins wasn't kidding when he said a couple of weeks back that the Cavs were better without O'Neal. And Doc Rivers, when he addressed the media on Saturday afternoon, gave all the credit in the world to the rest of the Cavs' bigs.

"Varejao, Hickson, and Leon Powe, and now Ilgauskas, in my opinion, they've been the difference in the games that they've won and we've won," the Celtics said. "In the first game, [Rasheed Wallace, Perkins and Kevin Garnett] dominated that game with their size, their strength. The second two that they've won, they've beat us on their energy. Varejao has been a superstar in their two wins. He's dominated the games with his effort, with his quickness. Hickson has played well. Leon, in the little time he played, Leon hurt us. So yeah, it comes down to that."

Shaq will be out once again when the Cavs take the floor in Boston on Sunday afternoon. Varejao, still resting that hamstring, is likely out as well. Cleveland coach Mike Brown will do battle with a duo up front of Jamison and Hickson — a pair that's a bit undersized, but plays with all the energy in the world.

The Celtics know how to combat that energy.

"With muscle," Rivers said. "With power. With guys putting bodies on each other. It's tough for a quick guy to move when a 300-pound guy's leaning on him."

Six weeks ago, the Cavs had a 300-pound guy of their own in O'Neal. But this time, not so much. The Cavs are a different team without the big man inside, and the Celtics had better be ready.

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