MIAMI -- All it took to comprehend just how far Greg Oden has come since the start of training camp five months ago was to see him on the court with LeBron James the other night in the second quarter.
As James moved to the left wing with the ball toward the Miami Heat’s bench, Oden subtly slipped behind his defender in the lane to the right of the basket and launched his 7-foot, 275-pound frame into the air and motioned toward the rim.
In a split second, James spotted his open big man and connected perfectly with Oden for the lob dunk midway through the Heat’s blowout win Saturday against the Orlando Magic.
And all it takes to understand just how tough Oden is on himself despite the strides he has made on the heels of a four-year layoff is to grasp his explanation of arguably the best play he has made all season. Asked if the way he finished the setup from James was reminiscent of his days back in Portland before multiple knee surgeries derailed his career, Oden shook his head and quickly rejected the notion.
“No,” Oden said, flatly. “Because [back then], I would have jumped a little bit higher.”
Oden is one of the most dominant forces in the league when it comes to self-deprecation. If the former No. 1 overall pick has maintained at least one thing through the season, it’s the perspective to accept it’s going to take more than four months to knock off four years of rust from injuries and inactivity.
But Oden is gaining both confidence and rhythm -- albeit one possession at a time -- with his role and playing time having slightly increased in recent weeks. He is coming off modest season highs in both minutes played (13) and points (eight) during Saturday’s victory.
And Oden hopes to build on his best quarter of the season, when he made all three of his baskets and hit a pair of free throws after coming off the bench for a stint in the second period against Orlando. Among the reasons coach Erik Spoelstra said Miami was not overly aggressive in trying to make a significant addition to the roster is because the front office believes Oden’s gradual emergence has given the Heat the sort of boost akin to a midseason trade.
Perhaps no week of the regular season will offer a better assessment as to where Oden stands than the one Miami opens with Monday’s game against Charlotte to end a four-game homestand. The Heat have two back-to-back sets in eight days, which could test the extent of Oden’s conditioning if he plays consecutive nights. And with the Bobcats, Rockets, Spurs and Bulls on deck, Oden stands to face four of the league’s most productive big men in Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and Joakim Noah.
By this time next week, the Heat could get a much better feel for what Oden might be able to offer heading down the stretch and into the playoffs, specifically against teams with bigger frontlines. But even with 26 games remaining in the regular season, Spoelstra continues to preach patience and big-picture perspective with Oden considering how far he has come just to get to this stage of promise.
“The biggest victory for him is that he is available and in uniform,” Spoelstra said of Oden. “We continue to want to be disciplined. He has put in a great deal of work to get to this point. He’s a smart player that has picked up our system in a short period of time. I like the contributions he’s been making, and he’s been putting in a tremendous amount of work just to be available every night like he is.”
Just being able to put a uniform on each night is considered tremendous progress for Oden, who overcame some early setbacks in his rehab and conditioning in training camp and the preseason. The high-water mark came last Sunday, when Oden started for the first time in four years in a win over Chicago as James sat out after breaking his nose the previous game.
Spoelstra said he hasn’t considered going bigger and starting Oden on a regular basis, largely because he has been prone to picking up fouls and has struggled with his timing. But there has been gradual progress for Oden, who has played in eight of the past 10 games and 13 overall this season.
Heat president Pat Riley, who began monitoring and recruiting Oden early in his attempts to resurrect his career, has endured every up and down his project center has faced along the way. In a rare session with reporters, Riley addressed Oden’s status during the Heat’s Family Festival fundraising event Sunday.
“I’m just happy for him,” said Riley, who signed Oden to a one-year contract for $1.3 million. “I can’t imagine what a player would go through when you’re the No. 1 pick in the draft, and all of a sudden you’re sitting out for 3½ years. I root for him more than I’ve ever rooted for anybody. I just want him to feel good about himself again and make a contribution.”
Riley also suggested the team has also gone through growing pains with Oden behind the scenes.
“Our training staff has done an incredible job of getting to a perfect time, through trial and error, of exactly how many minutes he can play, what his knee feels like the next day and how they’re treating him, which is allowing him to play every night,” Riley said. “I just cross my fingers and knock on wood every day that he stays healthy. And if he does, he’s going to get better. And if he gets better, than we’ll get better. That’s why we brought him in.”
Beyond the health of Dwyane Wade’s knees, Oden’s potential impact represents the next biggest X factor for the Heat amid their pursuit of a third consecutive championship. As a result, Oden knows he’s a work in progress, but also believes he’s ready to pick up the pace.
“It’s just the more I play, the more comfortable I get out there [and] the more they get comfortable with me,” Oden said of working alongside James, Wade and Chris Bosh within the regular rotation. “When my knee feels good, I’m always going to feel I can do more. There’s always going to be a progression with me. But I’m out there playing, and that’s all that matters.”
A reliable and consistent role appears to be on the horizon.
“He continues to get his legs under him,” James said. “I love the way Spo is playing him right now. In the second quarter, he knows he is going in. He’s ready every time and gives us great production.”
Having seen the flashes of Oden’s impact, teammates naturally long for more as they move forward.
“Now is the time for him to take the next step and get to the next level,” forward Shane Battier said. “He’s capable of next-level things. We just need him to be big and be in the right spot.”
That spot is in the middle of all of the action in the paint. And when Oden is there, his presence allows Bosh to shift to his more natural position of power forward. Bosh has thrived when he has been able to step out to the perimeter and create mismatches when Oden or Chris Andersen mans the middle.
“We’re going to need him down the line,” said Bosh, looking toward a potential Eastern Conference finals rematch against the big and bulky Indiana Pacers. “We just need him to continue to evolve.”
It’s an evolution that has been four years in the making. Now, Oden appears on the cusp of a regular rotation role. That’s what makes this week such a big test against a solid line of opposing centers.
“That’s why they brought me here, to play against other big guys and put another body in there,” said Oden, who has averaged 3.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in nine minutes a game. “I’m happy to be on the team. You just don’t know what to expect when you join a team that’s two-time defending champions. Everything is a surprise to me still. So when I get a chance to play, I just don’t want to mess up.”