- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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The quartet has accumulated 48 All-Star appearances, two league MVP awards, four NBA Finals MVP trophies, a mind-boggling 100,615 career points and seven championship rings. The thirty-something nucleus of the Boston Celtics, which for our purposes now includes 39-year-old Shaquille O'Neal (he's expected to see his first postseason action in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat) has been, shall we say, around.
They are seasoned enough to know when they're in trouble. They are savvy enough to know when a younger, more athletic team smells blood. They understand that talent almost always wins out, and maybe, just maybe, the passage of time has robbed them of certain critical skills that were second nature to them back in the day.
Yet, with each diminished skill comes a heightened awareness of the need to play smart, disciplined, focused basketball. Adversity becomes a challenge, a strength, not a fear. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra termed it "mental discipline.''
It is supposed to be the trump card for the Boston Celtics.
We will find out Saturday evening if that is still true. Three days have healed Boston's bumps and bruises and their battered psyche. Rivers disputed the perceived extent of his team's demoralized state, but added, "Even if we were down after Game 2 we've always been resilient and we will be again.''
If the Celtics win Game 3 at the Garden, the series stands at 2-1 and anything is possible. If they lose, they will trail 3-0 to a team that features one superstar who already knows how to win a title (Dwyane Wade) and another whose entire legacy depends on winning his first (LeBron James).
In short, Boston's season is hanging in the balance Saturday.
Here are 10 reasons why the Boston Celtics will win Game 3:
1. They are playing at home
There's nothing like familiar surroundings for a team that includes some of the most superstitious and obsessive veterans in the league. Now Ray Allen doesn't have to fret over where (and when) he'll get his pregame meal of chicken and rice. Now Rajon Rondo can plan his five pregame showers. Now KG can take a nap in his hyperbaric chamber, then retreat to his own locker and lather himself into his traditional pregame frenzy without interruption.
2. The Heat have to perform on the road
It's no secret D-Wade struggled during his visits to Boston this season. He shot 43 percent against the Celtics (including postseason) at home and a woeful 30.3 percent (10-for-33) at the Garden. James Jones, the sniper who buried the Celtics in Game 1 with 25 points, has missed eight of the 10 shots he's taken on the parquet. Just a guess, but figure on Boston's leather-lunged fans being up to the task of attempting to disrupt Miami's karma.
3. Pierce is due to bust out
Paul Pierce, Boston's top scorer, removed himself from the equation in Game 1 with his untimely outbursts and subsequent ejection. A sprained foot in Game 2 caused him to miss 8 minutes, 23 seconds of "game time,'' which is an eternity when your team is struggling to score. Pierce pronounced himself healthy on Friday and then declared with a smile, "Paul Pierce being in the game in the fourth quarter is always going to help the Celtics.'' Consider it a good sign when Boston athletes speak of themselves in the third person. Wade Boggs usually went on an 18-game hitting streak afterward.
4. KG will get named called early and often
Kevin Garnett took 20 shots in Game 2 in an effort to exploit his matchup with forward Chris Bosh. Although he shot the ball poorly (8-for-20), most of his misses were high percentage attempts close to the basket. Rivers has informed his (offensively) reluctant forward to expect another 20 attempts in Game 3.
5. Shaq expected to play Saturday
Can't you hear the roar now the moment the Big Shamrock steps up to the scorer's table? The numbers compiled by ESPN's stat wizard Peter Newmann reveal an overwhelming advantage for Boston when Shaq is in the game. In the two games he played against Miami this season, the Heat had a net rating of minus-28.3 when he was on the floor. The Celtics averaged an eye-popping 121.1 points per 100 possessions when Shaq was out there, an improvement of 26.2 points per 100 possessions compared to when he wasn't. Boston's shooting percentage went from 45.5 percent against Miami without Shaq to 54 percent with him. Rondo shot 34.5 percent against Miami without his big center and 50 percent with him. Shaq forces the Heat to make defensive decisions. If they continue with some of the stifling double teams they've utilized against Allen and Pierce, that leaves the big fella free. If they play everyone straight up, it gives Boston's scorers more breathing room.
6. Boston's bench versus Miami's bench
Lost in all the doom and gloom after Game 2 was a solid performance from Delonte West, who seems to have regained his confidence in his stroke and was far more aggressive defensively. Jeff Green showed promise offensively in spurts but still needs to prove he can be at least serviceable in containing LeBron. If Boston's second unit can outscore Miami's reserves 27-12 on the road (as they did in Game 2), imagine what edge they can carve out in their own building.
7. The Celtics still haven't played their best basketball
There's no doubt the Heat have contributed to Boston's woes with their defensive schemes, yet to a man, the men in green reported they saw evidence on game film that what ails them can be corrected. Rondo hinted at some different play calls. Garnett talked about blocking out more. "We can play better,'' Rivers said. "We're capable of doing it without a ton of adjustments.''
8. LeBron is human. At least we think he is
He has been transcendent in this series -- an elite player who has controlled play with superb decision making, athleticism and passion. Yet even the most legendary superstars have moments where they falter. Can James submit another night when he shoots 56 percent from the floor, scores 35 and doesn't turn the ball over at all? Pierce hopes to have something to say about that.
9. Rivers has so incessantly stressed the need for his team to attack the basket there's a chance his guys might actually listen
Miami's 53-31 edge in free throw scoring has been one of the most glaring statistics in the series. Both Pierce and KG vowed to balance those numbers off.
10. The Celtics understand their season on the line
"The urgency is there," Garnett reported. "This it. We've used all our lifelines.'' Garnett repeatedly mentioned an "all in'' mentality as paramount for Game 3. Boston appears to have avoided the "trust issues" the Lakers are squabbling about. They also have been counted out before. "I like our chances,'' said Pierce. "Especially with our backs to the wall.''
One of the most admirable -- and maddening -- qualities about this group of Celtics has been their ability to bounce back from dire circumstances. Have reports of their death once again being greatly exaggerated?
"I didn't know we were dying,'' Rivers quipped.
They will be if they don't win Saturday.
Jackie MacMullan, who has spent nearly 20 years as a beat writer and columnist in Boston, is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.
4hMatt Walks, ESPN.com