Greg Oden's progress hints at bigger impact

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MIAMI -- Tim Duncan wasn't quite ready Sunday to explore the possibilities of Greg Oden’s upside.

But the San Antonio Spurs' big men clearly experienced the downside of being on one side of Oden, who made his most explosive move amid his comeback from multiple knee surgeries that sidelined him for four years.

The play came late in the second quarter, when Oden slipped into the lane, caught a pass from Dwyane Wade and slammed down a dunk in traffic while sandwiched between Duncan and burly Spurs forward Boris Diaw. Oden insisted after the game that it was no big deal, and worth only two points.

Literally speaking, he’s correct.

Figuratively, it was the latest point Oden has made to show just how much of a potential impact he can make in the rotation as the Heat try to hit their stride over the second half of the season. Oden's dunk was the only field goal he made in Sunday's 113-101 Heat victory against the Spurs in their first regular-season meeting since Miami won Game 7 of the NBA Finals in June.

The bigger sign of progress for Oden was the season-high 13 minutes he played in his fifth game back.

“He looked good in the minutes he played; he played solid for them,” Duncan said when asked what kind of lift Oden might provide down the line. “He’s a big body in there, obviously, and finished around the rim. They’re very good at moving bodies in and out of there, so who knows what he’ll bring?”

Duncan is the latest in a growing line of the league’s high-profile post players to face Oden as he takes the initial steps in a long-awaited journey back to becoming a regular contributor to an NBA rotation. Duncan, who finished with 23 points, missed his first two shots and had a turnover on his first three touches after Oden entered the game with 7:22 left in the second quarter.

Oden is still searching for his offensive rhythm, something that may be a long time coming, but the former No. 1 overall pick has already shown flashes of how disruptive he can be defensively. Oden had similar stints in recent appearances against Pau Gasol of the Lakers and Bobcats center Al Jefferson.

After the Heat’s win against the Lakers on Thursday, Gasol said it was good to have Oden back as an active member of the NBA’s big-man fraternity.

“I was happy that he was on the floor [and] I wish him luck,” Gasol said. “I hope he can just play and hopefully the knee won’t bother him too much and he continues to get better.”

Jefferson offered a similar sentiment when he stopped by the visitors locker room to speak to Heat assistant coaches after Miami’s win in Charlotte a week ago. Oden said he appreciates the acknowledgement from his peers, but knows he’s a long way from being a consistently effective player.

“It’s been a long road for me, and just to get back on the court and battle against those guys, it definitely means a lot,” Oden said. “They’re the best of the best. Just for me to be out there, knowing everything I’ve been through, I’m just happy to be doing it.”

Oden, sitting quietly at his Heat locker, then shook his head and looked toward the dozens of reporters who were waiting near the lockers belonging to Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James. He then pointed out all of the things he didn't do well on the court Sunday, and how he wishes he could help his teammates more during his short stints. Oden has been his own biggest critic, at times even strangely self-deprecating, since he first returned to action Jan. 15 against Washington.

In five games, Oden has played 42 minutes with totals of 17 points, 10 rebounds, 10 fouls and 3 blocks. His teammates are more appreciative of things he does that don’t show up in the box score.

“He’s continuing to get comfortable, and we’re continuing to get comfortable with him,” Wade said. “He’s causing a little havoc down there, just getting tipped balls. Going to the basket on him isn't going to be easy. He’ll make you change your shot. He’s working very hard, and we love when he’s in there. Hopefully he continues to progress to where we need him to be come April, May and hopefully June.”

Meanwhile, Oden looks to continue to work off the rust.

“I know there are a couple of plays when I was setting picks and I probably picked two guys at once,” Oden said of the difference his presence makes. “Just going down there and making two guys come and try to block me out, that's just taking another man off our guys and freeing them up somewhat. That’s how I can make a difference right now, because my offense isn't where I want it to be and my wind isn't where I want it to be. So the more I’m working on that, the more I’m working on things I can do.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich insisted it’s important to keep the long view in mind with Oden as he works through some conditioning issues in his attempt to play longer stretches in games. But in short bursts, he’s already proved to be a handful.

“I was impressed,” Popovich said. “He can plug some holes in there, block some shots, get some boards and be there for dump-offs [offensively]. He can be a big help. I just don’t know how far that he’s progressed or what’s his ceiling. But I was impressed with him.”

Oden is embracing the small strides along the way.

There was the blocked shot on a driving Jeff Green against the Celtics on Tuesday. Before that, it was pounding in the paint against the rugged Jefferson in Charlotte. And this week, there were the props from Pau followed by Sunday’s dunk on Duncan.

It’s all incremental progress for Oden.

“Considering that I missed my [previous] dunk, I’m just happy that one went in,” Oden said. “I didn’t score after that. But it was a good play. I can get better. But any time I walk off the court OK, it’s good.”