In was only a handful of minutes and featured barely a few encouraging moments. But the story of Wednesday's game took shape when Greg Oden finally made his return to NBA action in the second quarter after four years of recovery from devastating knee injuries.
Oden's four-minute stint just before the half marked his first game action since Dec. 5, 2009, as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers, when he suffered the second season-ending knee injury since he was drafted No. 1 in 2007. Fittingly, Oden's first contribution was a dunk on his first touch just a few seconds after he checked in with 5:15 left in the second quarter. He added two rebounds, defensively altered a couple of shots and had a couple of fouls before he left with a minute left in the half.
"I'm happy I'm able to walk off this court and I'm able to play another day," Oden said during the Heat's postgame television broadcast. "I'm still getting it back, and I've got a long way to go. But I'm happy to get back out there. It's been three long years. My friends and my family and God, they've been there with me the whole entire way."
What does this mean for Oden and the Heat?
Initially, it means that Oden got his wish and that coach Erik Spoelstra proved to be a man of his word when he cleared the way for the 7-foot center to play in a preseason game as long as Oden progressed with his rehab and conditioning. But beyond that, the true significance of Oden's cameo won't -- and can't -- be determined until a measuring device is placed around his knees Thursday to gauge the extent of any swelling that may occur after Wednesday night's game and an overnight flight to Miami.
What Oden did on the court against the Pelicans is no different from the short stints he's played with the Heat during scrimmages over the past few weeks. He's had on and off days along the way, and there were suggestions last week that he had experienced a setback that sidelined him for several days after he practiced in five-on-five drills.
But Spoelstra has long cautioned that Oden is a long-term project and not a quick fix, that giving him a day or two off from extensive activity doesn't necessarily constitute a setback in his recovery or progress. Before Wednesday's game, Spoelstra told reporters in New Orleans that he believed Oden was "ahead of schedule" in terms of where the team figured he'd be at this point when Miami signed him to a one-year contract in July and started this process.
Spoelstra then told Oden to be prepared to play. Just a sneak peek of Oden's potential impact alongside Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade offered plenty of promise late Wednesday night. But just as vital for the Heat and Oden will be the patient approach they both must continue to take.
One thing is clear: Oden's plight has galvanized this team. If there was any thought the two-time defending champion Heat would struggle to find motivation and inspiration entering the season, their reaction to every move Oden made in his brief stint Wednesday should erase any doubt.
Rolling out the rotation
Spoelstra entered Wednesday's game with a regular-season approach, considering the way he worked his rotation.
He'll always keep his options open, but expect the lineup Spoelstra started against the Pelicans to be the one he'll go with in the Heat's opener Tuesday against the Chicago Bulls. Miami opened with Mario Chalmers, Wade, James, Udonis Haslem and Bosh. The Heat's first four off the bench were the same reserves who were in the rotation last season when Miami wrapped up its second consecutive title: Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen.
As was the case last season, James remained on the court with the reserves when that unit entered the game for the first time in the final minutes of the first quarter. A preview of what Michael Beasley's role could be initially came into focus when he entered for a short stint when James left the game near the end of the first quarter. That placed Beasley in the role of 10th man in the rotation.
Wade then opened the second quarter playing with the reserves as Beasley went to the bench. That 10th man role will continue to be a situational deployment, based on matchups. So it's conceivable that Beasley, Oden or, perhaps, Rashard Lewis could rotate that assignment. Lewis continues to be away from the team for a second consecutive week to attend to a family matter.
Big Three ready
While Bosh carried much of the production load in the initial preseason games, James and Wade have gradually worked their way into prime condition for the season.
James and Wade had their best performance in tandem during the victory, combining for 52 points, eight assists and seven steals. They each shot 10-of-17 from the field. Wade, who played in consecutive preseason games for the first time this fall, logged 33 minutes while James had a 29-minute night. Bosh had a team-high nine rebounds.
James and Wade each led dominant, game-altering runs for the Heat. James scored seven straight points during a 22-3 spurt that allowed Miami to overcome an early 15-point deficit. Wade knocked down his lone 3-pointer of the season and had a breakaway dunk during an 18-2 push that resulted in the Pelicans' first loss of the preseason.
It's likely that James or Wade -- possibly both -- will sit out the preseason finale Friday at home against Brooklyn.