With 9:11 left in the game, Stan Van Gundy watched the future of the Miami Heat franchise walk toward the locker room. And as he looked at the bench, he knew.
Thirty feet away, Larry Brown could be heard telling his players, "We have three and a half minutes to get it to eight."
As Shaq rose off the bench to get back in the game, he knew just like Van Gundy what needed to be done.
The question, even with Miami holding a 78-62 lead, was whether Shaq by himself, without Dwyane Wade for the rest of the game, would be enough. Every second half in every game of this series has been worse than the first for him. And now he had to do what he used to do, but up until now didn't need to do or couldn't do this year.
Shaq's wife, Shaunie, sat in the stands.
So did Heat president Pat Riley (who could be seen). The team's principal owner/general partner, Micky Arison (who remained unseen), had to know, too.
They all knew.
It was time for the leader to lead. After 13 years in the league, Big's rep was on the line. And this time, for the first time, he didn't have a sidekick to balance the act.
Five points and two rebounds later, his job was done. In the end, he sat on the bench, towel wrapped around his neck, watching Alonzo Mourning carry the weight of maybe the biggest win in the franchise's history.
Twenty points and five rebounds were Shaq's final numbers. He had 14 and three at halftime. Another second half of nothing. Another un-dominating performance from the player everyone calls the most dominant of all time. Still, he got to speak to Craig Sager after the game.
Can it be said now? Shaquille O'Neal is overrated.
Or are we all missing something?
There's a story about Shaquille O'Neal that cannot be written. It's the one about the flaws in his game that have nothing to do with free throws, his lack of commitment, his insecurities as a teammate and person, or how he always plays the victim.
No one will write that story because Shaq is Shaq the nicest guy in the world, the guy with the heart of a kid, the most unpretentious superstar in professional sports. No media person in his right (or write) mind would degrade Shaq in print. It's career suicide. It isn't worth it.
So let's start here.
In the house of Cheryl Rodgers. Laker fan for life. Residence: Inglewood, Calif.
She'll publicly say: "I hate Shaq! Make sure you print that!"
When I ask why, her answer takes us through half a quarter of the game.
Like others journalists in Chicago, entrepreneurs in Atlanta, haters in D.C. she has her reasons. Most stem from the flawless way the media (and most fans) portray Shaq. Outside of his free-throw shooting, nothing bad is ever said about him.
You hear it all the time. Shaq this, Shaq that, he's the MVP every year, he's the greatest of all time.
In Phoenix this year, the hate got thick. MVP? He let Shawn Marion average more rebounds than he did this season. Some thought his consideration was racial. Not Nash's. Averages of 22.9 and 10.4 aren't MVP numbers, not for "He Who Is Most Dominant," who has career averages of 26.7 and 12.0. Why deny the white guy consideration in a year when Shaquille, from a statistical perspective, had an un-Shaq-like season?