The Heat prepare for Shaq's return

May, 6, 2011
5/06/11
2:40
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Joel/Shaq
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images
With Shaquille O'Neal expected to play on Saturday, this is a matchup Heat coach Erik Spoelstra may want to avoid.

MIAMI -- Shaquille O’Neal changes things.

On Thursday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers announced that he expects the 39-year-old center to play in Saturday’s Game 3 and that will probably prompt a small adjustment from Erik Spoelstra and the Heat.

But if you ask the Heat players, you get the sense it’s not something they’re worried about at all.

“Obviously, having him back is going to be a boost of energy to the crowd and to the team,” Dwyane Wade said at Friday’s practice. “But it’s our job to continue to execute our game plan and not worry about who’s coming back and who isn’t.”

After Wade spoke, LeBron James was asked to share his thoughts on O’Neal’s expected return.

“Whatever D-Wade said,” James responded. “We will all play our game. You can only put five guys on the court at one time. We’ll see what happens.”

Does it change the Heat’s frontcourt rotation?

“Nope, nope, nope,” LeBron said.

Despite what LeBron insists, Shaq's return will probably change the Heat’s frontcourt rotation.

Remember Erick Dampier? He’ll likely have to dust off his jersey and suit up for Game 3 after being on the Heat’s inactive list in the postseason, although Spoelstra made no indication about his status at Friday's practice. At 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds, Dampier represents the Heat’s biggest body on the roster, a superlative that could put him on the court on keep-Shaq-out-of-the-paint duty.

On Saturday, that duty could last maybe five minutes. But if Shaq has the kind of impact that he’s had this season, every minute will be crucial to the Celtics' success. Pete Newmann and Dean Oliver of ESPN’s Stats and Info department dug up some fascinating numbers on O’Neal’s impact this season.

As old as he may be, the Celtics' offense hasn’t been nearly as potent without him on the court -- especially against the Heat. Consider this: the Celtics averaged 121.1 points per 100 possessions with Shaq on the floor against the Heat this season, a whopping 26.2 points per 100 possessions better than when he was off the floor.

With Shaq in the fold, the Celtics improved their offensive game across the board. Virtually every Celtics player saw his efficiency skyrocket with Shaq next to them. Rajon Rondo shot 34.5 percent from the floor with Shaq off the court and 50.0 percent with him on the court. And Ray Allen? His field goal percentage soared from 50 percent (really good) to 68.8 percent (really great) with Shaq out there.

The team’s assisted rate (percentage of field goals assisted) jumped from 61.4 percent to 66.7 percent, the team’s rebounding rate climbed from 45.7 percent to 54.2 percent, and overall, the team’s field goal percentage increased from 45.5 percent to 54.1 percent. Whether Shaq is directly responsible for all that, we can’t be totally sure. But those are the facts.

What we don’t know is whether the May version of Shaquille O’Neal will have a similar positive impact. Will he be in shape? How well will his body move? The Celtics don’t know and the Heat clearly don’t know either.

But the Heat will be prepared for him, although it probably won’t involve the Heat’s defensive savant Joel Anthony. Shaq tossed Anthony around like a rag doll in the fifteen minutes that he shared the court with him this season. Anthony’s presence basically gave Shaq the green light to score. According to NBA StatsCube, Shaq tallied 24 points on 21.6 field goal attempts per 36 minutes with Anthony on the court. When Anthony sat on the bench? Shaq scored just 5.8 points per 36 minutes on just 2.9 field goal attempts. That's impact.

Spoelstra will likely keep the 6-foot-9 backup center on the bench during Shaq time. That’s especially significant in this series because Anthony has been a game-changing presence on that end of the floor. At least on Saturday, the Heat won’t have to make enormous adjustments, but there’s no doubt that Shaq will change Boston’s chances in this series. Whether it’s a change for the better remains to be seen.

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