MIAMI -- All along here, Shaquille O'Neal believed it would be he and Pat Riley chasing the championship together.
From the beginning, on the shores of glistening Biscayne Bay, Shaq called him "Coach," a bond born out of his respect for Riles' stature. Shaq, the son of a U.S. Army sergeant, has always been rooted in reverence for the authoritative figures in his life. No, Stan Van Gundy never stood a chance.
Riles and Shaq were destined to be together on the floor. Still, time is running out; opportunity is slip, slip, slipping away.
Suddenly, there has come this moment of truth for Shaq. He's pushing past his prime into that strange sports place where great athletes still have great talent but can no longer summon it on a moment's notice.
He's 34-years old, and those 340 pounds have done some job on his knees. Flash forward a year and you wonder whether Shaq will be able to carry a basketball team all the way through the Eastern Conference playoffs, through the West champ and to a ticker-tape parade.
As he reaches his mid-30s, with the way he lags on conditioning, this is it for him. Dwyane Wade is stepping into his best years just as Shaq is bidding goodbye to his own.
"All of us are getting older," Nets center Jason Collins said. "[Shaq is] still able to go out there and be a dominant low-post scorer, but it's just how dominant can he be?"
Shaq had 20 and 10 in Game 1 of the Heat-Nets Eastern Conference semifinals, but the box score so blatantly fibbed. The numbers came too little, too late.
Still, everyone understands that there is no stopping Shaq, unless Shaq stops himself. But around him, there are mismatched parts. Riley made a mistake bringing Antoine Walker to Miami at the expense of stopper Eddie Jones. Whatever, that's the reality now. With Wade on his side, Shaq still can stop all that background static.
So everyone is watching closely, trying to decide whether Shaq's 30-point, 20-rebound night to close out Chicago was the start of something in these playoffs or just a punctuation mark on a series that the Heat had let go too long.
But how do we tell with Shaq sitting on the bench? He can't stay out of foul trouble. Against the Bulls, it was a recurring issue. And five minutes into Game 1 of the conference semifinals, Shaq had knocked Collins back twice with offensive fouls and ended up on the bench while the game was getting away from Miami.
Once, the NBA accommodated Shaq. The officials let him play, let him be physical, but no more. As Shaq spins to make his move, those elbows sailing, the defenders willing to stand ground are getting rewarded.
Collins is short on grace, but he's long on toughness and tenacity. He'll take Shaq's best hits and keep coming back.
"You can't lead with your elbow into my nose," Collins said. "But I'm going to hold my ground. He's not going to go through me."
Shaq ripped a league of floppers over the weekend, but it won him no favor with officials. Over the years, Pat Riley has amped up his verbiage in the playoffs, but he wanted the bellyaching to stop on Tuesday. It was killing the Heat, and he knew it.
"I don't want to talk about it, because if you keep driving that point into the officials' minds you can have a backlash," he said.
Shaq was always going against history -- the legends of Chamberlain and Russell -- as well as against the best in the game today. Maybe now, the fight's with the officiating. He's been the most difficult athlete in sports to referee, but this is no time for Shaq's stubborn streak to bring him down.
There's too much on the line now, too much wrapped up in this run.
Riley has spent his life coaching superstar centers -- Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and now Shaq. He's always attached his loyalty, his fate, to the bigger-than-life franchise stars. Now, he goes the distance with Shaq.
"He's smart," Riley said. "He'll make the adjustments. ... Again, it's like me talking to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He knows more about post-up play than I do as a coach. He's been playing it for a long time. He's seen every single defense. I've watched teams play him in a number of different ways. He's made them look silly."
Recently, though, no one has looked sillier than Shaq trying to thunder a path to the NBA Finals only to be sent to the bench with foul trouble.
Sometime soon, it will be too much to ask Shaq to take a team all the way to the NBA Finals -- all the way to a title -- but no one is sure that it's reached that point yet. As Collins said, Shaq is still a dominant force.
And it's too late in the game, too late in his career, for Shaq to let all that beat him.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj10@aol.com. His book, "The Miracle of St. Anthony: A Season with Coach Bob Hurley and Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty," is now available in paperback.