By A. Sherrod Blakely
WALTHAM One of the reasons the Boston Celtics were more than eager to add Shaquille O'Neal to the roster last fall was because of his experience in big games.
Down 2-0 to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals?
It doesn't get much bigger than Game 3 for the Celtics.
And for the first time in weeks, the Celtics are approaching the game convinced that O'Neal will play.
O'Neal, out since re-aggravating a right Achillescalf injury on April 3 - he had missed the Celtics' previous 27 games with the injury - has improved to the point where coach Doc Rivers believes the 7-foot-1 center will see some action in Game 3 on Saturday.
"Right now," Rivers said, "we expect every single guy including Shaq, to play in Game 3."
How much he plays remains to be seen.
The last time O'Neal stepped on the floor, he lasted less than six minutes before hobbling off the court.
The C's are hopeful this return won't be as short.
Regardless of how much he plays, having O'Neal back is both a blessing and a burden of sorts for the Celtics.
He gives them an inside presence offensively that they have lacked throughout this series. He also provides a big body to set screens, something the C's have done a horrible job at throughout this series. And while Jermaine O'Neal has done a solid job as a starter, he doesn't have the same touch around the basket that Shaq does nor does he command the same kind of attention from defenses.
Defensively, the return of Shaq will certainly cause some problems for the Celtics when Miami runs pick-and-roll plays.
But because of his size, he has the ability to take up a considerable amount of space around the basket which should cut off or at least force Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to detour away from the driving lanes that they've essentially lived in during this series.
"He's a handful," Miami's Zydrunas Ilgauskas told CSNNE.com about Shaq. "Really good player, smart player. Eats up a lot of space. It won't be easy dealing with him, but we'll be ready."