Shaquille O’Neal Likely to Return, But Celtics Need Improvement Across the Board in Game 3

Shaquille O'Neal Likely to Return, But Celtics Need Improvement Across the Board in Game 3 After a three-month wait that felt more like three years, the Celtics are finally confident that Shaquille O'Neal will play for them on Saturday night at the TD Garden.

Nothing is certain — there are still ifs, ands, ors, buts and plenty of other conjunctions and prepositions being thrown around — but at this point, it's looking likely. No one's betting house and home on it, but smart money says Shaq is on the floor when the C's host the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

That being the case, we're seeing the conversation shift. It's no longer a matter of "Will he play?" but rather the question of exactly how much he can provide.

Shaq played 15 minutes in February, zero in March and five in April. It's hard to say what he can do on May 7.

At his best this season, Shaq has been a dynamo in the low post offensively, adding a scoring presence that the franchise hasn't had in a generation. He's never been good for heavy minutes, but in short stretches, he's unstoppable. He scores, he intimidates, and he draws the attention of opposing defenses, in turn making everyone else in green better.

If that Shaq shows up on Saturday night, the C's are still very much alive in a series they currently trail 2-0.

But the 39-year-old big man played only 20.3 minutes per game this season, by far a career low, and most of that was while relatively close to tip-top health. In this instance, there are no secrets about it — he's obviously playing hurt. This won't be vintage Shaq.

"There's no way you get him 100 percent," C's coach Doc Rivers admitted Friday. "That would be a miracle. But we can get him to a point where he can help us, and I think he may be at that point."

Those words are somewhat encouraging, but they don't exactly blow you away. It almost sounds as though Rivers and the Celtics are just as confused as the fans. No one knows what to expect from the banged-up center.

One man looks forward to having him back.

"Any additions to our lineup, regardless of who plays, would be a help," Kevin Garnett said. "Shaq coming back would be a huge help for us."

Another isn't so sure.

"I don't know," said Rivers. "I really don't. I know what Shaq brings, guaranteed, and that's size. But other than that, we don't know what he can give us on the floor."

The Celtics are in a place right now where they very much need an offensive post presence. They've been trying to establish something down low against the Heat — with Garnett, with Glen Davis, with Jermaine O'Neal — and it hasn't worked. They need another body in there, if nothing else just to mix things up.

The Celtics averaged 96.5 points per game this season despite playing at a snaillike pace. So far in this series they've gone 90, 91. They need another element. Perhaps they need a Shaq.

They're likely to get one on Saturday. But there are no guarantees of how effective he'll be, and the Celtics know they can't take anything for granted.

"We have to play better," Rivers said. "I don't even get into who's playing and who's healthy. I never do. The bottom line is we can't look for some witch doctor. We just have to play better, and we're capable of doing that without a ton of adjustments.

"There are no saviors. We have to save ourselves as a group."

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