MIAMI -- With their first full week of preseason action behind them, we examine five things we learned about the two-time defending champion Miami Heat last week as they prepare for the Oct. 29 season opener against the Chicago Bulls.
1. Greg Oden quietly gaining confidence
It's no secret that the Heat are completely erring on the side of caution when it comes to every aspect of Oden's comeback from a series of devastating knee injuries that have derailed the former No. 1 overall pick's NBA career. What is a bit surprising, however, is that Oden's teammates and coaches might be more concerned about his psyche than the stability of his recovering knees at this point.
To that end, Oden has been in great spirits since the start of training camp and teammates have seen his confidence soar with each workout he's participated in the past week. Oden is expected to be cleared for five-on-five scrimmage work this week, and is pushing to play in one of the Heat's five remaining preseason games. Coach Erik Spoelstra hasn't ruled out the possibility, although he continues to believe Oden has a long way to go to develop into a reliable rotation player for Miami.
Oden, who competed in two practices last week and didn't have any setbacks, is ready to do a bit more.
“When my swelling goes down, they let me do more,” Oden said. “The more the swelling goes down, the better my knee feels and the more I can do. But this felt good, just being part of a real practice.”
Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who has been dealing with injuries and recoveries the past few seasons, said Oden is at a key stage of the process as he tries to get his mind and body on the same page again.
“The biggest thing is I'm happy for Greg that he's able to be back on a basketball court,” Wade said. “Obviously, I'm someone who's dealt with injuries -- not to the extent that he's dealt with. I know he'd love to do more, but he's happy with where he is. Our coaches are approaching it well. They're not rushing it -- making sure when he gets out there he can be the player he wants to be.”
So exactly how much progress has Spoelstra seen in Oden?
“From where I saw him in the middle of July to where he is right now, he's made great strides,” Spoelstra said. “I really want to temper expectations [and don't] want to put a timeline on it. We're making progress. He's been extremely diligent working with our training staff. He's increasing his strength in his lower body, arguably the strongest he's ever been in his life. His body fat is coming down back to the standards where we would like it. He will still continue to get lower.”
2. Beasley balancing burdens
Perhaps it was a Freudian slip of the tongue, given the recent embarrassing mishap. But Spoelstra did say he doesn't want Michael Beasley “beating yourself up” over mistakes on the court. Instead, the best way Beasley can show maturity and a grasp of the system is by moving on to make the next play.
Beasley faced some national jokes and ridicule for reportedly punching himself so hard out of frustration for mistakes during Thursday's game in Detroit that he required medical attention from the training staff in the locker room after the game. But a day later, both Beasley and the Heat vehemently denied the swelling above his right eye was caused by a self-inflicted blow. Instead, it was the result of an inadvertent elbow from Pistons forward Jonas Jerebko. Beasley has strung together consecutive promising outings in preseason wins Thursday in Detroit and Friday against Charlotte. He'll try to build on those performances in games at Washington on Tuesday and Brooklyn on Thursday.
“All I want to do is go out there, play hard and let everything else fall into place,” said Beasley, who was then asked if his troubles of the past -- on and off the court -- were truly behind him. “I don't know. I'm not a fortune teller. I can't see the future. I can't control life. But I can control what I do, and we'll just go from there and take it day by day.”
3. Too early to worry about wade
Wade insists his on-again, off-again availability in preseason games so far shouldn't be a cause for concern. Actually, he might even deserve a bit of credit for taking such a proactive approach to reducing some of the early wear and tear on his knees.
Wade said he sat out of Friday's game against the Bobcats because it didn't make any sense for him to play back-to-back sets at this point in the season. He then questioned the league's logic for even scheduling teams to play on consecutive nights in the preseason.
The plan calls for Wade to be back in the lineup Tuesday in Washington. He won't come right out and admit that he's partaking in any sort of maintenance program as far as the schedule is concerned. But Wade is playing -- or not playing, at times -- with a clear purpose.
“I understand at this time, I'm not going to feel 100 percent,” said Wade, who underwent knee procedures each of the past two offseasons. “I will never, ever feel 100 percent again. But I know I'm going to get better as it goes on [during the season]. You get healthier as the time goes on.”
4. LeBron shaking off the rust
Those rumors of LeBron James' demise after some early preseason struggles were completely exaggerated. James said to give him about a week to start getting his legs under him after he shot a combined 6-for-23 in last Sunday's team scrimmage and through the first two preseasons games.
But James' rhythm apparently began to kick in during Friday's 20-point performance against the Bobcats, when he shot 8-of-14 and basically toyed with second-year swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on consecutive possessions midway through the game. At one point, James nailed a step-back jumper from the top of the key with Kidd-Gilchrist draped all over him in the process.
A Bobcats player sitting nearby on the bench shook his head in amazement at James' shot, then turned to a teammate and said: “That's just not fair to the rest of us. I mean, what can you do [defensively]?”
5. Defense ahead of schedule
After spending their entire week of training camp in the Bahamas focused exclusively on defense, the Heat have shown flashes of midseason form on that end of the court through three exhibitions.
Although playing time has been limited for key players and lineups because of nagging injuries and other factors, Miami has forced 21.3 turnovers a game and has limited opponents to 89.6 points and 42.2 percent shooting from the field amid a 3-0 start to the preseason.
“We're already starting to work some of our habits,” James said. “We still have a long way to go to where we need to be. But everybody is buying into what we're trying to do on that end of the court.”