Greg Oden Active for Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2014

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For the first time in more than four calendar years, Miami Heat center Greg Oden suited up for an NBA regular-season game on Wednesday, Jan. 15, against the Washington Wizards.   

Oden not only dressed, but also saw game action. NBA on ESPN describes his return:

While the Heat ended up losing 114-97, Oden was the big story. He finished with six points and two rebounds in eight minutes of action. 

ESPN's Tom Haberstroh reports Oden's thoughts on his first regular-season action with Miami:

"Earlier today, coach said I could dress," Oden said after the game. "I didn't know if I was going to play or not, but I got out there and I did, and I'm happy I got the chance.

"It felt good, just being able to be back out on the court. 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."

Oden also commented on the Heat's plan to be patient with the center's minutes:

"It's a plan to keep me playing," he 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."

Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick initially reported Pat Riley's confirmation that Oden would be dressed for the game:

News of Oden, who signed a one-year contract with Miami this past summer, being activated just hours after the Heat traded away longtime backup center Joel Anthony in a three-team deal. Miami acquired point guard Toney Douglas in exchange for Anthony and draft picks, a move that freed up long-term money on the salary cap and could be an insight into Miami's thinking heading toward the Feb. 20 trade deadline.

"You don't know what's going to happen in the future," team president Pat Riley said, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "We've got six weeks to try and figure this thing out."

Working Oden slowly into the rotation will likely be part of that adjustment over the coming weeks. When the signing was announced, both sides promised to take the process slowly—so as to not aggravate one of the numerous leg injuries Oden has suffered during his career.

Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald originally said Oden was not expected to play Wednesday despite being activated, so Oden logging minutes does come as a bit of a surprise:

While there has been process in recent weeks, Oden is still working to get comfortable with his body while making sure he's not an active detriment to Miami when on the floor. Videos captured by Skolnick of the seven-footer working out last month captured the progress he's made thus far:

Still, even the most pessimistic person likely expected Oden to at least suit up for a spare game here or there sooner than this. The Heat surprised everyone by subbing the 7-footer into a preseason game on Oct. 23 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Oden played four minutes, scoring two points and grabbing two rebounds, causing some to theorize that he could be back sooner than later.

Instead, the New Year rang in with Oden still parked firmly on the bench. He has missed the first 37 games of Miami's season—not that the two-time defending champs necessarily missed him. The Heat are 27-10 heading into Wednesday's game, sitting in second place in the Eastern Conference.

Their efficiency numbers on both ends of the floor, as per usual, are stout. Miami ranks second in offensive efficiency, scoring 109.3 points per 100 possessions. The has also spent nearly the entire season as a top-10 defensive unit—a must when competing for a championship.

The latter stat is particularly important for Oden, who figures to be an important cog in Miami's defensive makeup. While the Heat can handle regular-season seeding and nightly matchups just fine, Oden was brought in to shore up the one area of weakness of a team that has lived up to its Goliath billing since assembling: rim-protection.

The Heat are largely a defensive outlier for the precise reason they have no one to protect the basket. Erik Spoelstra has instead implemented a high-pressure, trap-heavy scheme on pick-and-rolls that is designed to force teams out of the framework of their offense and create turnovers. And, for the most part, it works. Miami dwarfs all other teams in opponent turnover rate, thanks to excellent execution and freakish athletes on the perimeter.

NASSAU, BAHAMAS - OCTOBER 3:  Greg Oden #20 of the Miami Heat participate in Training Camp on October 3, 2013 at Atlantis Resort in Nassau, Bahamas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, Us
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However, Miami has twice found itself scrambling to defeat the Indiana Pacers in the postseason, thanks in large part to their size in the middle. Roy Hibbert is the game's best rim-protector, at times even flustering LeBron James near the basket. Combined with the length of Paul George defending on the outside, David West's two-way toughness and the precision of Frank Vogel, the Pacers are a team seemingly designed to stop the Heat.

Oden, in theory, will work to offset some of Hibbert's effect. While wildly inconsistent offensively against teams not from South Beach, Hibbert suddenly morphs into an offensive juggernaut in these teams' matchups. Vogel has implemented actions and counteractions designed to resist Miami's traps, thus putting Hibbert in an advantageous scoring position.

While the Heat would never expect Oden at this stage to single-handedly anchor a defense, his presence figures to be a new wrinkle in what feels like an age-old rivalry. 

But let's not get ahead of ourselves when what's important is the present. Oden has been away from the nightly grind of NBA basketball since the early part of the 2009-10 campaign—getting anything from him will be a near miracle. Both of his knees have undergone multiple surgeries throughout his short career, rendering the 2007 No. 1 overall pick's story among the most tragic in league history.    

After working so diligently to get back in the lineup, Oden is finally there. Now let's see if he can stick around this time.