Just because Greg Oden played in a game for the first time in four years on Wednesday doesn’t mean he’s going to be a regular in the Heat’s rotation from now until the playoffs.
After the initial celebration of Oden making his debut with the Heat, it might be time now to temper expectations and return to a season already in progress. Oden was held out of practice on Thursday at Temple University as a precaution, making him questionable for Friday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers. The good news: Oden said his knee didn’t swell after scoring six points in the loss to the Wizards.
“It’s fine,” Oden said. “No swelling. A little sore, as usual, but it’s nothing I can’t manage. It always gets sore after I work out, so it’s nothing different than that.”
After an initial setback with Oden’s knee during the preseason, the Heat’s training and coaching staffs have taken a more patient and deliberate approach to Oden’s rehabilitation. The plan appears to be working — Oden played nine minutes in his first game back — but there are constant and daily evaluations that must be passed physically before Oden can even step onto the court. One test, of course, involves the Heat recording the swelling of Oden’s knee with a measuring tape, but there are other checkpoints in the road to recovery as well.
“Where it goes from here, we can’t put a timetable on it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ll just have to see how he feels tomorrow, but we’re going to stick with the plan, and the plan will be the strength training, the core work, the hip strengthening work, the conditioning, and if he can’t do those, then we won’t play him. Those will be the evaluations [Friday].”
The overly cautious approach stems from an alarming setback Oden had during the preseason.
The center hinted toward severe pain in his knee earlier this season, but said on Thursday, “We’ve been fortunate enough not to have that for a while.”
Oden played against the New Orleans Pelicans in the preseason, but was then shut down and not allowed to speak with reporters.
“It was in the past, so I’m not going to speak about that,” Oden said. “There is no soreness now.”
For Oden, there are several grades of knee soreness. There is the kind he deals with every day, and then there is the kind of pain that signals something is wrong internally. After four major procedures on his knees, Oden is an expert at recognizing the difference.
The delicate nature of Oden’s body presents a unique set of challenges in fine-tuning the team’s defense and preparing for the playoffs, but the uncompetitive Eastern Conference standings have given the Heat a generous timetable.
Despite the current three-game losing streak, the Heat is still seven games ahead of the third-place Raptors in the loss column. The Heat (27-11) is 5-5 in its last 10 games and now 3.5 games behind the Pacers in the standings.
But all of that is secondary to protecting Oden’s knees this early in the season.
“He has no pressure,” LeBron James said of Oden after the Heat’ third loss in a row. “Whatever he can gives us, with his time out on the floor, it’s going to be a plus. We know he’s a big body and he’s going to rebound and he’s going to help block shots, he’s going to help clog the paint and he can catch and finish and that’s something we can definitely use.”
Oden acknowledged his teammates’ understanding approach.
“They’ve all been cool with me, getting out and playing,” Oden said. “They let me and the staff kind of take our time and make sure I was ready.”
The Heat had an extended practice session on Thursday after its embarrassing loss to the Wizards. Spoelstra drilled the team on defense and then reviewed a lengthy film session.
“NBA seasons are long by nature, so you go through a lot of ups and downs,” Spoelstra said. “If you’re just going to brush the downs underneath the carpet and not learn from them, not own it, not take responsibility for it, and collective improve, then it will come back to bite you at some point, so today was about trying to catch it before it gets worse and even that doesn’t guarantee anything.
“We have to make sure we bring it tomorrow and give ourselves the best chance.”