It was again Thursday as the Celtics convened for their first practice session since falling behind, 2-0, to the in the . Coach finally could say he anticipated that O’Neal would play when the series resumes Saturday night at TD Garden.
“We’re not going to let him do too much,” Rivers said. “Someone will ask: How much is too much? I don’t know what too much is. Walking on the floor could be too much. We’ll figure that out.”
Rivers did say that O’Neal would not start.
The , he was returning from a strained right Achilles’ tendon, which had kept him out for more than two months. He played a spirited five and a half minutes, delighting the crowd and his teammates, before he came up limping with what the team said was a strained right calf.
Even after the April 3 injury, the team hoped O’Neal would be ready for the playoffs. But before the start of their series against the , the Celtics said O’Neal failed a basic running drill and would be out indefinitely. He missed all four games of that series and the first two in Miami.
O’Neal, 39, missed a career-high 45 games this season, his first with the Celtics after signing as a free agent over the summer. All of the missed games were a result of injuries to his right leg.
Asked how O’Neal, listed at 7 feet 1 and 325 pounds, might affect the game, Rivers said: “He’ll be big. At the end of the day, he’ll be big.”
O’Neal’s availability for Game 3 hinges on his being able to make it through practice Friday and whatever pregame session the team has Saturday. He was not available for interviews Thursday.
While O’Neal’s return could provide an emotional boost, the strong likelihood is that he will play limited minutes. It falls on the starters, the ones likely to play 35 to 40 minutes, to turn around the series. Rivers said that Paul Pierce (strained left Achilles’), Rajon Rondo (sore back) and Ray Allen (sore chest) were better after some Game 2 bumps and bruises.
The Celtics spent most of their time Thursday going over film from the first two games, a loss in Game 1 and a loss in Game 2. Rivers found many areas of concern, but none that he said could not be corrected. Still, he knows that fixing the errors may not be enough.
“You have to deal with the fact that they have great confidence,” he said of the Heat. “We gave it to them.”
Rivers talked about the need to stay composed, avoiding what he called “mental hijackings.” He said the Heat played harder in the first two games, finished stronger at the basket and attempted 68 free throws to the Celtics’ 40, even though Boston was called for only five more fouls. took no free throws over 74 minutes in the two games.
“They beat us; we tip our hats to them,” said Allen, the only starter made available to reporters Thursday. “They did what they set out to do. We don’t like the way we played in either game. We have to rectify that.”
Asked what he thought was most important, Allen echoed a party line: “Just be more on the attack. It seems like they attacked us all day long. Offensively, we have to attack more and then take that easy stuff away.”
The Celtics also need to tighten up defensively. They allowed the fewest points per game in the regular season, 91.1; Miami is averaging 100.5. The Celtics were No. 5 in 3-point field goal defense at 34 percent; Miami is making 45.7 percent of its 3-pointers. Miami is also shooting 46.2 percent as a team; Celtics opponents shot 43.4 percent during the regular season.
But on top of Rivers’s to-do list is, simply, to win. The Celtics probably need to win Games 3 and 4; otherwise they would be in a 3-1 hole with the prospect of winning twice in Miami. But they have to start with Saturday.
The Heat has never lost a playoff series in which it led by 2-0. But the Heat knows that being up by 2-0 is no guarantee. Miami trailed the , 2-0, in the 2006 N.B.A. finals and won the series in six games.
The 1969 Celtics rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the N.B.A. finals to beat the in seven games. Seven other Celtics teams have faced a 2-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. All lost, and three were swept.