The whole season has been about Shaquille O'Neal, from the moment he was traded from Los Angeles to Miami, from Hollywood to South Beach.
It's been about O'Neal's ugly divorce from Kobe Bryant and finding a new mate in Dwyane Wade. It's been about O'Neal's old team being a mess and his new team becoming a contender. It's been about O'Neal vs. Steve Nash for MVP, it's been about O'Neal's bruised thigh. It's been, very sweetly, about O'Neal paying for the funeral of George Mikan, demonstrating that he absolutely understands there are moments and people even bigger than he is.
So this is exactly how it ought to go down: Game 7 Monday night, Pistons vs. the Heat, O'Neal in the middle of everything, trying to rally his team out of the infirmary and into the NBA Finals.
California or Florida, Lakers or Heat, playing with Bryant or Wade, O'Neal is still the biggest star in basketball, probably in the sports universe. He's 3-0 in his career in Game 7s, but he's never had to play one against the defending champions, in this case a team so audacious its members have championship belts from last season's conquest of O'Neal's fractured Lakers. And he'll have to do it with his running mate, Wade, reduced to some degree by a pulled muscle in his rib cage.
If Miami is to win Game 7 and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, it'll be because O'Neal, hobbled himself entering this series, straps the team to his back like the Goliath he has been the last 10 years, and carries them to victory.
This season has been all about O'Neal since the beginning of the season, when he said he would be "devastated" if his team didn't win the championship this season. Did he mean disappointed? "No," he emphasized, "devastated."
The week that ended Saturday night was strange, even by O'Neal's standards. While battling the Pistons, O'Neal took the time to pay tribute to Mikan, the NBA's first superstar and the giant who was the league's most fascinating player its first dozen or so years. O'Neal, having become friends with Mikan over the years, knew he had fallen on hard times. He suffered from diabetes and kidney problems and had recently lost a leg. His $1,700 monthly pension from the NBA wasn't enough to cover everything, and Mikan wound up selling personal memorabilia to pay for his medical expenses.
So when it was learned after Game 5 that O'Neal was paying for Mikan's funeral expenses, it signified the extent of the evolution of the big man who once didn't know that Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens had actually played in the NBA before he coached.
"It speaks to what Shaquille is all about," one of Mikan's six children, Terry, told the Palm Beach Post.
O'Neal has evolved to the point where he is all about a lot of things. If not the NBA's most valuable player this past season, this postseason had demonstrated that O'Neal is still the game's most important player, its most marketable player, its most dominant player, its pivotal player. If the Pistons are going to advance, it's appropriate they have to go through O'Neal in the ultimate pressure game, Game 7.
Yes, he's going to need plenty of help and an able Wade on Monday night. Wade was not in uniform for Game 6, a 91-66 decision in which the Pistons held the Heat to the lowest postseason point total in franchise history. He winced at times while warming up before the game before the team's medical staff decided he couldn't play. His status for Monday remains in question, but many expect him to at least attempt to play.
On Saturday, Wade was replaced by Rasual Butler, who scored 13 points and perhaps learned some things that will make a difference in Game 7. As Magic Johnson accurately suggested in the aftermath of Detroit's 25-point victory in Game 6, role players such as Butler and Eddie Jones can turn in one great game at home. And as Turner Sports analyst Kenny Smith is fond of saying, "Game 7 doesn't build character, it reveals character."
After a season of full of character-building and character-revealing experiences, O'Neal has the ultimate one Monday night: a Game 7 against the team holding the championship belts.