The smile splashed across Greg Oden’s face Wednesday night revealed the joy, the relief, the sense of achievement of playing in his first NBA game in nearly four years.
As first steps go, this was a rousing success.
“Four minutes, it’s enough for me,” Oden said after playing exactly one second less than that in a second-quarter appearance during the Heat’s preseason victory at New Orleans Arena. “As long as I got out there and I walked off the court and I’m healthy, that’s all that matters.”
Oden’s cameo, after years of struggling with knee injuries, was both encouraging and eventful.
There was an emphatic dunk, off a nifty pass from Chris Bosh, on his only shot from the field. There were two rebounds, an emphatic blocked shot and another shot deterred.
He set effective screens. He ran the floor well for someone who hadn’t played since the first year of President Obama’s first term.
There were also two missed free throws, two fouls and two turnovers, but none of what happened Wednesday was about numbers.
This was about finally feeling the warmth of the light at the end of the tunnel after all the angst and heartache, the darkness of depression, all of the grueling rehabilitation after five knee procedures and setbacks.
“His face lit up when I told him I was going to put him in the game,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He was prepared for it. He’s been making steady progress, and it was just great to see him do something he loved to do but was taken away from him for four years. We’ll just continue to make steady, patient progress for him from here.”
Oden was heartened by the effusive reaction of teammates, who gave him a shout-out in the locker-room afterward: “I know the guys were happy for me. I definitely felt love.”
LeBron James put it this way: “I have no idea what my feeling would be like after being away from the game for three years. I was so excited for him when he got on the court and his first basket he gets a dunk.
“Can you write it any better? Obviously he’s not where he wants to be, but the process is going great. I was so happy for him. I was like a big brother seeing his little brother succeed again. It was a great moment.”
Chris Bosh said: “We remind him daily that we’re going to need him. So, just to see him take that first step forward is huge.”
Oden played alongside Bosh, and that pairing should be effective against teams with two offensively gifted power rotation players, such as the Indiana Pacers, with Bosh slotted into his natural power forward position in those lineups.
The two combined to force a turnover on one sequence Wednesday.
“He’s going to be in that five position where he has to make quick reads,” Bosh said. “I made sure I told him during camp — he was kind of hard on himself — and I was like, ‘Look, you haven’t played in a very long time and we move fast. We move faster than usual, so don’t worry about that. There’s going to be a huge learning curve. Just stick with it and you’ll be fine.’”
Before Wednesday, Oden hadn’t appeared in an NBA game since Dec. 5, 2009, as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. He was injured that night, ending a dynamic 21-game stretch to open the season when he averaged 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.3 rebounds, while shooting 60.5 percent, and doing all of that in just 22.8 minutes per game.
The next step, Oden said, is “making sure everything is taken care of in my legs and making sure it gets back to where it feels good, and then I’ll get out there another game. My big thing is getting my core and my hip strength back, just so my legs are strong.”
Spoelstra again preached patience.
“We still want to temper the expectations,” he said. “This will still be big-picture, long term, what we’re looking at. But we’re just encouraged that he’s able to make this step forward.”
Shane Battier cautioned: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He still has a long way to go on the road to recovery. But as a teammate and a friend, it was tremendous to see him out there.
“The speed of the game is probably the toughest thing to recoup after being gone for three years, but he’s picking it up. And we don’t have a very simple system to pick up.”