WASHINGTON -- Greg Oden was smiling about basketball again.
It took him four years to get back to this place. Four years, two microfracture surgeries, a broken knee cap and a battle with alcoholism later, Oden sat at his locker grinning in front of a pack of reporters. The former No. 1 pick in 2007 had played in a regular-season game again, the first time in 1,503 days.
How did it feel to be smiling again?
“Very good,” Oden said. “Very good. But you know, I wish we could have won.”
We could sit here and go over how the Miami Heat got blown out by the Washington Wizards by 17 points. We could labor over the fact that the two-time defending champs have dropped three games in a row for the first time since January 2012. We could talk about how the Heat gave up 28 fastbreak points for the first time all season, 16 of which came in the first quarter.
But let’s be honest: We’ll remember this one as the game that Oden returned to the court, instantly reminding us all of the size and skill that once made NBA executives drool years ago.
No one really saw this coming. On the morning of Wednesday’s game, the Heat didn’t even know that Oden would make his season debut. They didn’t even think he’d be activated on the roster.
So, Oden’s time had come. The Heat players found out about the trade over lunch and shortly after, Oden got word: he’d dress for the game.
“I didn’t know if I was going to play or not,” Oden said. “But I got out there and I did. And I’m happy I got the chance.”
Of course, the first time he touched the ball, he dunked it. Off a Dwyane Wade miss, Oden snatched the ball away from Wizards center Marcin Gortat’s hands, gathered himself underneath the basket and thrusted down a two-handed slam. Cheers roared from a Washington crowd half-filled with Heat fans. The Heat bench erupted, just like they did back in an eerily similar situation in a preseason game in New Orleans. Oden dunked his first touch back then as well but this time it counted.
What goes through your mind like that? After four years and the long road back? What was that like?
“It was a feeling of ‘Get back on defense,’” Oden said.
The Heat didn’t do a whole lot of that on Wednesday night. They fell behind by 34 points at one point in the second quarter as John Wall, Nene and Bradley Beal ran up and down the court all over the Heat. Oden wasn’t supposed to play, but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, in a surprise move, put him in with 6:03 left in the second quarter.
Why bring Oden in then?
“We were down by 30,” Spoelstra said.
As if there weren’t enough Heat surprises, Oden came out in the second half with the rest of the starters, subbing in for Shane Battier who watched the third-quarter’s opening minutes from the bench. The aggressive approach ensured that Oden wouldn’t get stiff like he did after four minutes of action in the preseason game in New Orleans. Oden rode a bike during halftime and Spoelstra gave him the nod.
Oden’s final line in eight minutes of action: six points on two dunks and a pair of free throws along with two rebounds. Not captured in the box score were several altered shots and screens.
“It felt good, just being able to be back out on the court,” Oden said. “Honestly, the big thing is, to be able to have now that connection now with my teammates. I’ve been here, I’ve been around, but when you’re not playing, sometimes deep down you don’t really feel part of the team as much. I’m happy I can do that now.”
You could see Oden was content on Wednesday night, sitting in a chair at his locker in the corner of the visitor’s locker room with giant pillows of ice on each of his troublesome knees. Rarely do you see a pack of reporters flee LeBron James’ postgame interview while the MVP in in mid-speech.
But Oden was ready to talk. The crowd fled James and flocked toward the seated Oden, forcing Chris Andersen, who sat in the neighboring locker next to Oden, to rise and escape the stampede.
Four minutes, Andersen jokingly decreed. That was all that he’d let the swarm of reporters ask Oden questions before Andersen would need his seat back.
Oden knew he had turned the corner last week when he played a series of four 4-on-4 games to seven on an off day with his teammates.
“That was the closest thing to 5-on-5 so that made me feel like I was kind of close.”
James said he didn’t even know that Oden was playing until he saw his fellow No. 1 overall pick lacing up his basketball shoes just before the game.
“Oh, you active?” James recalled asking Oden. “I had no idea.”
James assisted on Oden’s second dunk of the game out of a pick-and-roll, something we’ll probably see many times again if Oden can stay healthy. But it was Oden’s first dunk that James couldn’t believe.
“How is this possible that every time you sit out long periods of time, you decide to come back and you keep getting a dunk on your first attempt?” James said. “That’s pretty cool, man. Hopefully he can continue to stride, getting three minutes a half to five minutes a half to 12. He can be a big plus for us. Obviously in the short amount of minutes tonight, he was pretty good for us.”
The plan is to evaluate how Oden feels on Thursday before mapping out the next step. The Heat play a back-to-back starting on Friday in Philadelphia and the Heat promise to exhibit more patience, regardless of how Oden looked on Wednesday.
“It’s a plan to keep me playing,” Oden said. “That’s the thing. I don’t want to just get out there and then get injured again. My thing is to make sure I can go out there and keep playing games. That’s the plan and we’re sticking to it.
“He has no pressure,” James said. “Whatever he can give us, it’ll be a big plus. He’s somebody that we can definitely use.”
The Heat could use something that resembled an NBA-caliber defense.
The team has now given up at least 100 points in three consecutive games for the first time since a four-game streak bending around the New Year last season. With the 114-97 loss after four days off, the Heat have now allowed 116.8 points per 100 possessions over their last three games, pushing them outside the top ten in defensive efficiency. The Heat now rank 12th on defense after their latest slide.
Maybe it was the Anthony trade, but the Heat looked out of sorts from the beginning. Wade stunk up the joint, scoring just eight points on 4-for-11 shooting. Nene overpowered the Heat defense, registering a career-high nine assists along with 19 points. Not the response that Pat Riley wanted to see from his seat in the stands alongside side Heat general manager Andy Elisburg.
Before the game, Riley said there was “nothing going on” with free agent Andrew Bynum. The Heat will move along without him for now and wait for Douglas to join them on the road trip.
But for now, the real story is that Oden is back and the Heat will take this one day at time.
“This is the plan,” Oden said. “It’s gotten me this far. It’s gotten me in the game so we’re going to keep at it.”