Regardless of the final numbers on the scoreboard or postgame stat sheet, Greg Oden considers it a victory if he’s able to walk off the basketball court under his own power and lives to play another day.
That’s why Oden had the biggest smile in the arena after he played his first NBA regular-season game in more than four years last week, despite the Miami Heat having trailed by as many as 34 points en route to a lopsided loss to the Washington Wizards.
And it’s also why Oden, the former No. 1 pick, sat in his locker three nights later after a win in Charlotte trying to look at the bright side of a clumsy, foul-riddled stint during the second game of his comeback. As Oden reflected on his first week of on-court action after spending the past three years fighting back from debilitating knee surgeries, alcohol abuse and bouts of depression, his perspective was clear.
“I’m not injured again, so it went well,” Oden said of seeing action in two of the Heat’s three games last week after sitting out since Dec. 5, 2009. “I’ve had so many injuries and so many ups and downs, you know. But it’s like I said a long time ago; for me to walk off the court and be injury-free, it’s a blessing.”
Oden enters his next week of work hoping to continue to build on those blessings.
The Heat wrap up a six-game trip Monday in Atlanta against the Hawks before they return to Miami to finish out the month with a high-profile homestand that features nationally televised games against the Lakers, Spurs (in a rematch of last season’s NBA Finals) and the Thunder.
Barring a setback, Oden could play for the first time in front of the Heat’s home fans as early as Tuesday, when the four-game homestand opens with a visit from the Boston Celtics. Understandably, the soft-spoken but massive 7-foot center hasn’t dared to look that far ahead on the schedule.
Despite being activated for all three of the Heat’s games last week, and playing short stints in two, Oden’s availability remains a day-to-day dilemma. Progress will continue to be a methodical process.
So far, so good.
Both Oden and the Heat’s training staff have been encouraged by the way his body has responded to the limited minutes he played against Washington and Charlotte. Oden goes through an extensive regimen of tests and measurements to gauge the swelling and pain in his knees before and after each workout and game. There was no mention of unexpected issues over the weekend, so it appears Oden will likely get another crack to work off some of the deep rust in his game over the coming days.
“The more he’s out there, the more confident and comfortable he’ll get,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Oden. “We’re not going to try to force anything with this. With Greg, it’s a specific process, with a focus on getting him to build his way back up. To know where he’s come from, and to see where he is now, you really appreciate how he’s approached everything with an absolute work mindset.”
That work was rewarded last Wednesday, when team president Pat Riley and Spoelstra cleared Oden’s path into the lineup a few hours after reserve center Joel Anthony was traded to Boston. The Heat were also without backup center Chris Andersen, who has missed the past four games with a knee bruise.
Oden’s impact was established from the moment he entered the game in the second quarter after the Heat got off to a terrible start against the Wizards. He delivered an emphatic dunk on his first touch -- just like he did three months earlier in a preseason game at New Orleans -- and was disruptive in his matchup against Washington big men Nene and Marcin Gortat.
Oden had six points and two rebounds in his first few minutes, and helped spark a failed rally in which the Heat would ultimately trim that 34-point deficit down to nine by the fourth quarter but fell 114-97. Oden started the second half at center in a move Spoelstra said was designed to keep his knees loose.
After dressing but not playing Friday in Philadelphia, Oden was back on the court in the second quarter of Saturday’s game against the Bobcats. This time, the rust showed and Oden picked up three fouls, including two that were offensive, and a turnover in five minutes.
In a total of 13 minutes, 16 seconds over two games, Oden dunked both of his made baskets, hit three of four free throws, grabbed two rebounds and also had four fouls and a turnover. Heat teammates have seen signs of the potential Oden can bring if he continues to take small steps forward.
“I’m not disappointed at all with how he’s playing,” center Chris Bosh said of Oden’s first week of work. “It’s going to take some time to get a feel for how he plays and what he likes to do, and he’s getting a feel for it as well. He just has to get his timing back and just continue to work and get used to the speed of the game again. He’ll get it. The main thing is any time he’s out there, it’s a productive day.”
After the Washington game, Oden was simply thrilled to finally get back on the court in a meaningful game. By the time his night was done in Charlotte, Oden was already dissecting his early flaws.
“I’ve got to get better,” Oden said after working briefly against Bobcats center Al Jefferson, one of the most productive big men in the league. “I don’t feel like I did that well, so I’m a little bit down on myself. But the more I’m out there, I think the better my timing will be. It’s going to help me to get my wind [conditioning], get my feet under me. Every time I’m out there, it’s just more experience I get on the court after being out for so long.”
Even without contributing much statistically in that outing, Oden’s presence in the post commanded the attention of two Bobcats defenders at one point in the second quarter. As a result, Bosh was left open when he spotted up to make a 3-pointer on the side where Oden camped in the post.
The possibility of benefiting from those looks more frequently with Oden on the court left Bosh giddy.
“It’s fantastic because anytime you have just a big, physical guy like him carving out space, it frees me up to do a little bit more,” Bosh said. “I just have to keep a mindset to reward him for doing those things, get him so post touches, some easy buckets. When he gets in there, I think we can run extremely simple plays and he’s going to wipe everybody out and help us out.”
Eventually, that’s the plan as the Heat hope to get Oden relatively up to speed over the second half of the season as they look to fend off bigger teams in pursuit of a third consecutive championship.
For now, Oden remains very much an X factor, an unknown.
Every day without a setback marks another step in the right direction.
“I would have loved to get out there all three games [last week], but I know that wasn’t going to happen,” Oden said. “There’s definitely a lot of improvement to make. As long as my body keeps on feeling good and I get the chances to get out there that next game, it’s going to be another chance for me to play well.”