MIAMI -- Shaquille O'Neal limped off Miami's court silently Wednesday night, into the off-season.
Into an uncertain future, too.
O'Neal's career started against Miami, and it may have ended against Miami. The Heat beat the Celtics 97-87 in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Wednesday night, ousting last year's NBA finalists 4-1.
O'Neal's final stat line: 0 points, 0 rebounds, 0 minutes. It was the 40th time in Boston's last 43 games he was unable to play because of a lower leg injury that was originally thought to be minor and ultimately wound up derailing his 19th -- and potentially final -- season.
Now that Boston's off-season has arrived, the Shaq Watch is on. Whether he will come back or not is anyone's guess.
"This has been emotionally draining to him, more than you guys would know," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He feels awful about this because this is why he came here, to get to the playoffs and then play in the playoffs. Not being able to do that has really hurt him."
Trying it hurt him, too.
O'Neal made two brief appearances against Miami in this series. His only basket of the post-season was a reverse layup -- a play where he clearly aggravated the injury upon landing, barely even breaking into a jog down to the other end of the court.
"I had Patrick Ewing in his last year with Orlando -- and I played with him," Rivers said. "I was the coach, telling him 'We're not going to play you anymore.' That's an awful position, because what makes them great is their pride. Even when they're barely walking, in their minds they still think they can actually change the outcome of a game. Sometimes you have to be the one to tell them they can't."
O'Neal will have an option to return to Boston at about US$1.4 million next season, and even if there is no lockout, he would have more than four months to heal and rest before the start of training camp. Whether he wants to -- or even could -- put his body through the rigours of another season of practices, games and travel remains a mystery.
"Father Time has given him a long career," said Miami assistant coach Keith Askins, who played against O'Neal and then coached him during his time with the Heat. "But unfortunately, everyone that plays this game is going to see that day when they say, 'Enough's enough.' Sometimes you're forced out. Sometimes you go out on your own. In his case, it might be a little of both."
Askins was a Heat reserve who played in O'Neal's first NBA game, Nov. 6, 1992, for Orlando against Miami.
He isn't shy about saying Shaq changed the game.
"Shaq really brought in the entertainment side to basketball," Askins said. "Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, they brought NBA basketball back, to where it had notoriety. Shaq brought in that mammoth size with the personality. The most important thing about him, he has a beautiful personality. He's a very bright man and a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
Added LeBron James, O'Neal's teammate last season in Cleveland: "He made fans believe that they were at one with him."
If this was the end, the numbers he leaves behind are astounding:
-- 28,596 points, 5th in NBA history.
-- 13,099 rebounds, 12th in NBA history.
-- 15 all-star selections.
-- 4 championships.
-- 3 NBA finals MVP awards.
And if memorable moments were a stat, O'Neal would likely lead in that department as well.
He changed the game with his combination of size, strength and athleticism, bringing down baskets with his powerful dunks. He thought nothing of spending huge sums of money -- $650,000 one year in Miami -- to play Shaq-a-Claus for underprivileged kids at Christmas. And his quotes are the stuff of legend, ranging from his playful insistence to be called "The Big Aristotle" to saying at his Miami signing party that he was like "toilet paper and toothpaste ... I'm proven to be good."
There was another side of O'Neal as well, of course. He clashed at times with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson when they were together with the Los Angeles Lakers. When he left the Heat, the relationship between him and the team had eroded badly, almost forcing Miami's hand into trading him to Phoenix.
But for the most part, those who played with him have great appreciation for him.
"Obviously, Shaq is one of the most dominant players in our time," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "Who knows how long he's going to play, but you can never take away anything he's done in this game as a champion. The way he set the blueprint for guys like Dwight Howard, on and off the court. He's a legend. He's a living legend. ... It's unfortunate, but nothing takes away from Shaquille O'Neal."
Injuries tried to, however.
When the Celtics' bus arrived at the arena on Wednesday morning, O'Neal lagged well behind the rest of the players and staff on the short walk to the locker room.
His ailing right calf simply wouldn't allow him to keep up with the pack.
And what was painfully obvious then became official about an hour before game time: Shaq would be a no-go for Boston.
"Nothing he can do," Rivers said. "It's not like he's not trying. I told our team that (Tuesday). You know, he's done everything you possibly can do to get healthy. And unfortunately for him, he just hasn't been able to do it. When he was originally injured, no one even thought it was that serious."
That was Feb. 1. O'Neal logged 17 1/2 minutes of court time the rest of the season.
He turned 39 two months ago, cracked the 50,000-minute mark for his career last month, and has seen his numbers decline rapidly over the past two seasons. In 75 games with Phoenix during the 2008-09 season, he scored 1,333 points in 2,254 minutes. In 89 regular-season games with Cleveland and Boston over the two following years, he's scored 977 points in 1,989 minutes.
"I know he's frustrated," Celtics forward Paul Pierce said. "The man's been through a lot of wars, a lot of battles."
It's unclear if there will be any more of those.
And while there's a sense O'Neal may decide to retire, Rivers -- whose future has also been the source of much speculation in Boston, until revealing after Wednesday's loss that he is leaning toward coaching the 2011-12 campaign -- does not sound like he knows if this season will be the end of the line for the most dominant centre of the generation.
"I think it's too early to even talk about it right now," Rivers said. "I've learned personally that you never try to make any decision during the heat of the battle. Emotionally, you're always going to make the wrong choice then. I'll think he'll walk away for the summer and decide what he wants to do."