With every pain-free landing Greg Oden makes on the hardwood, the Heat is inching that much closer to realizing a rotation it believes will give it the best chance of winning another NBA championship.
On Thursday, Oden turned in his most productive effort since being cleared to play, and afterward Heat teammate LeBron James celebrated another brief glimpse of the grand plan coming into focus. Oden played 11 minutes against the Lakers and had five rebounds, including four on the offensive end. The time on the court and the number of rebounds represented statistical highs for Oden since his return on Jan. 15.
The minutes are great and the rebounds are encouraging, but it’s Oden landing without pain on offense and then transitioning smoothly to defense that is the most positive sign of his rehabilitation, according to James.
“The great thing I love seeing is when he jumps and he lands and he gets back on defense,” James said. “Even the [possession] where the ball was saved under our basket near our bench and [Pau] Gasol ended up getting it.
“I saw [Oden] fly in and try to get that and continue to play. That is positive for him, for us as a team, for us as a franchise — to just see him continue to make these baby steps in coming back.”
Considering Oden sat out for four years with knee injuries before joining the Heat, his small developments on the court in the past two weeks represent significant gains for his career and confidence. His strong performance against the Lakers was his first action in back-to-back games since his return.
His first week back, Oden alternated playing time in games with rest and was notably frustrated with his cameo in the Heat’s victory over the Bobcats. He picked up three fouls in five minutes and was a step slow in defending Al Jefferson.
But the stamina is returning and so too is the energy. He was a little quicker against the Lakers.
“[Oden] got a shot block, went after some offensive rebounds, had a chance to get some tip dunks — you could see he’s a little out of rhythm, but that’s OK,” James said. “He’s very active.”
The four offensive rebounds were the most significant contribution. After all, the Heat is ranked last in the NBA in that category. Oden averaged about a rebound every two minutes against Los Angeles and was in position for other boards.
“My timing is definitely off on my rebounds,” Oden said. “Most of the time, I’m coming down and the rebound is going right over my head. [Thursday] was just very encouraging for me to get five rebounds.”
Said coach Erik Spoelstra: “I loved it. What you’re seeing is a little bit of mistiming from time off. But if you look at the glass half full, you see him being in the right spots. That’s what you can’t teach in this game. He’s in the right spots. It’s just a matter of time before those plays are made, and we don’t have anyone else on our roster that can make those types of plays.”
Oden added that the more he becomes familiar with the Heat’s system, the easier the game will become. But for now the pain is manageable. That’s the most important development of Oden’s first two weeks back since 2009.
“I’ve still got a ways to go,” Oden said. “I’m still not as quick as I want to be out there.”
James was asked after the victory against the Lakers if he was concerned about Dwyane Wade missing four consecutive games because of knee soreness.
“Any time a guy misses multiple games in a row, you have some sense of concern,” James said. “Having him on the floor makes us more dangerous. But at the end of the day, having him healthy makes us more dangerous, too.”