Shaquille O’Neal has hardly played since Feb. 1, making just one five-minute cameo in early April on a Sunday afternoon at the TD Garden. He’s far from ideal game shape as he returns to the active roster Saturday night against the Miami Heat.
Rushing him back out there in the heat of a playoff series is far from the perfect situation, especially when the last time the C’s threw him onto the floor, he limped off it. But this time, there’s no holding back.
“Go ahead and dive in,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said prior to Game 3. “We don’t mind that. Just be you. Obviously Shaq can’t do things that he could do 15 years ago. But when he just comes in and fills a role for this team, he’s terrific for us. That’s what we’re hoping he can do.”
Rivers confirmed that Shaq would be active Saturday but come off the bench, with Jermaine O’Neal retaining the starting job. The exact level of Shaq’s involvement is unknown — he’s played as many as 35 minutes in a game this season, but he’s also had a couple nights of five or six.
“I have no idea,” Rivers said of Shaq’s workload. “With him, it’ll just be the eye test. Whatever we think he can handle, we’ll give him, as long as he’s playing well.”
As for the Heat, they’ll no doubt be forced to adjust to the big man’s presence on the floor. While Erick Dampier and Udonis Haslem both remain inactive for Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra, it’s likely that their active bigs — especially Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Joel Anthony — will see more minutes.
Spoelstra has definitely made a note of Shaq’s impact.
“It’ll change their rotation a little bit with the second unit, and give them a lot more physicality and presence under the rim,” the Heat coach said. “We feel that we’re a physical team, but we respect what he’s done over the years. We’ve seen it firsthand. If he’s healthy, he can impact the game in whatever minutes he plays.”