WASHINGTON, D.C. — Pretty sneaky, those Hollywood (Miami) Heat. Stars of the cinema and smaller screen, these guys certainly know how to build drama. And so they did again Wednesday, when they were stumbling and strolling their way to a whacking by the Washington Wizards.
"We just came out too lax," LeBron James said after the 114-97 loss, Miami's third straight. "They were playing at another speed, they were playing at like 15, and we were playing at like seven. I don't even want to give us that much credit. I think we were playing at like five. They were running by us in the first quarter."
Who knew that, in falling behind by 34, the Heat were simply setting the stage for one of the grandest, most inspiring entrances in recent sports memory?
You see, if not for Miami's incompetence, Greg Oden might have remained inconspicuous, again an observer from the side. He might not have had the chance to slam down a putback on his first offensive possession, sink his first two free throws, alter a couple of Marcin Gortat shots, or gather a deft dump pass from James and rattle rim. He might not have had the chance to make everyone remember what he was and envision what he could be.
After all, the former No. 1 overall pick hadn't been assured of such an opportunity even after Erik Spoelstra pulled him aside following shootaround, and even after Pat Riley—speaking to beat reporters for the first time in months—let it slip that he'd be active, adding, "He's really progressed. So, somewhere, I think we have to find out."
He hadn't been assured of such an opportunity even though the Heat had just traded Joel Anthony, didn't have Chris Andersen (knee) available and, at least according to Riley, had "nothing happening at all" with free-agent Andrew Bynum. No, his opportunity hadn't been assured until his Heat teammates entirely embarrassed themselves, allowing 43 points in the first quarter.
He was only granted the opportunity after Spoelstra had run out of attractive options.
"Today, we had an open spot, so I was really just going to suit him up," Spoelstra said. "And then if I had a moment to put him in for a couple minutes, I would. Otherwise, he was just going to be there. But then as soon as we went down 30, might as well try to reward him for the work that he's put in."
Work that stretched over the 1,502 days since he last played in a regular-season game, way back on Dec. 5, 2009, when James was still a Cleveland Cavalier.
Work that has helped him overcome three microfracture knee surgeries, among other procedures.
Work that intensified recently, with a breakthrough coming on an off day last week, when he and some teammates played four four-on-four games to seven.
"That was the closest thing to five-on-five, so that made me kind of feel I was getting somewhat close," Oden said.
On Oct. 1, prior to the organization eliminating his availability to curtail expectations, Oden explained to Bleacher Report how he would measure success.
"Marking success for me is walking onto a court and just walking off healthy," Oden said at the time. "No matter if it is one minute or two minutes. My dream is to be able to play basketball, and if I can go out there and do it, run up and down, and come off the court again healthy, that's goal one. Goal two is going into my second game and walking on and walking off."
He got through a first game on Oct. 24, playing four minutes in New Orleans, but that was just the preseason, and he didn't get to play another. Not for 10 more weeks. Then, before the game Wednesday, James saw him strapping on a knee brace. He asked if Oden was active.
"I was, like, 'Oh, you're active?'" James said. "And he was like, 'Yeah.' So that was very exciting. I didn't know he was going to get the opportunity to play, either."
Well, no one knew the Heat would wither against the Wizards.
"But when he got on the floor, I was like 'How is this possible, that whenever you continue to sit out for long periods of time, when you decide to come back, you decide to get a dunk on your first attempt?'" James said. "It happened in New Orleans in the preseason, and it happened tonight, too. That's pretty cool, man. I'm happy for him. And hopefully he can continue to strive, to get from three minutes in a half, to five minutes in a half, to seven, to 12, to where he can be a big plus for us. In the short amount of minutes tonight, he was pretty good for us."
Oden's first four minutes and 45 seconds came in the second quarter, when Miami cut the 30-point deficit to 24. He produced six points and two rebounds, not looking all that limited, except when James zipped a pass to him in the paint: "If I had my legs under me, I think I could have went up there and got the oop."
Spoelstra didn't want him getting too stiff, so after Oden spent some of halftime on the exercise bike, the coach started him in the third quarter.
"I think that kind of helped me out," Oden said.
He missed his only attempt, and Miami was outscored 9-3 in his three minutes and 39 seconds, though he bore no responsibility for the bulging deficit. All that matters is that he escaped intact, and he said that he had, as he iced his knee in the losing locker room.
"It felt good," he said.
Physically and emotionally.
"Just being able to be back out there on the court, and honestly the big thing is be able to have now that connection with my teammates," Oden said. "I've been here, I've been around, but when you're not playing, sometimes deep down, you don't really feel a part of the team as much. I'm happy I can do that, and I can go to battle with those guys."
The Heat can't expect him to carry the flag, not yet, maybe not ever.
Can he contribute more?
"We hope," James said. "But he has no pressure. He has no pressure. Whatever he can give us, with his time out on the floor, is a plus. We know he's a big body, he's going to rebound, he's going to help block shots, he's going to help clog the paint, and he can catch and finish, and that's something we can definitely use."
Oden also spoke of still taking it slow, of needing to see how he feels Thursday after the team arrives in Philadelphia, "and then move on from there."
"I don't want to just get out there and then get injured again," Oden said. "My thing is to make sure I can keep playing games. That's the plan, and we're going to keep sticking to it."
He was even on a pitch count in his postgame presser, with Andersen playing bouncer nearby.
"That's four minutes," Oden said. "Bird said I'm done."
"Yeah, that's it," Andersen said, smiling.
"He said that's it," Oden said, before slowly, gingerly rising to his feet. "So that's it."
That's what so many people understandably said about his playing career in 2009, and 2010, and 2011, and 2012, and 2013, after every surgery, every setback.
The difference between those claims and this interview?
This time, it was true.