By A. Sherrod Blakely
MIAMI While Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers remains optimistic that Shaquille O'Neal will play at some point during their second-round series against Miami, the outlook isn't nearly as rosy for Miami's Udonis Haslem.
Out since November with a foot injury, the Heat were hopeful that their emotional catalyst might be available to play in this series.
While Haslem has been practicing with the team, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra doesn't paint a rosy picture for the 6-foot-8 forward being back in the lineup soon.
"It might not happen in the next week, two weeks," Spoelstra said. "We're all trying to get on the same page about it, but what we're trying to be is objective. We're all eager, and while we all see the light at the end of the tunnel, the playoff series is not going to be our timeline."
As much as he wants to be back on the floor, Haslem knows he's not quite back to being his old self right now.
"It's very hard," Haslem said. "But understanding the situation, and understanding my situation and how much rides on this series, it's not about me. It's about the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics and it's about putting the best five guys on the court at any particular time."
Not that long ago, it was a no-brainer for Haslem to believe that he was one of those five.
As talented as Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh might be, Haslem provides a brand of toughness that's not easily replicated especially by Miami teammates.
When the playoffs arrive, often it is the players who understand the need for that brand of toughness - and maybe most important, can provide it consistently - that prove to be difference-makers.
But Haslem's foot injury, which much like O'Neal's right leg injuries, has dragged on longer than most anticipated, only adds to the frustration and disappointment both are coming to grips with as their respective teams try to move on to the Eastern Conference finals.
"Right now, I'm probably not one of those five guys and I understand that," Haslem said.
For now, Haslem will adopt a similar mindset that he had when he was an undrafted free agent trying to latch on with the Heat in camp.
"I have to keep impressing the coaches in practice," he said. "Keep trying to get back to what I was before I got hurt. I understand that's going ot take time, and I'll probably not get back to that level before the season is out. But if I can get close to that level, I feel that I can contribute something whether it's rebounding, defense, knocking down a couple of shots, something."