MIAMI — Restrained and restrictive.
That's been the Miami Heat's M.O. with G.O. since they signed the former No. 1 overall pick in the offseason and set him upon a steady path of rehabilitation and redemption.
Restrained in terms of touting Greg Oden's progress or speeding his timetable.
Restrictive in terms of allowing media to access him for interviews, with no introductory press conference, and no availability at all for more than six weeks, between his preseason Heat debut on Oct. 23 and his regular-season Heat debut on Dec. 15.
This was all done to temper expectations and reduce pressure to allow—more like force—Oden to develop at a deliberate pace following four years of crushing setbacks. The idea was to rebuild not only the wounded center's body, but also his spirit. It has worked splendidly so far, so much so that, while they haven't entirely shed their strategy, they have loosened some things a bit.
Including their lips.
We have seen Erik Spoelstra's curl in a smile when speaking of Oden, even at the coach's generally stiff, somewhat scripted, buzzword-heavy press conferences. Spoelstra is far more personable and sensitive in real life than he tends to be in those staged settings, and he let that human side show at the latter Thursday, following Oden's major breakthrough in Miami's 109-102 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
In his fourth appearance, Oden had reached the 10-minute milestone for the first time, and he had done so with significant time off between his two stints.
"I loved it," Spoelstra said. "I really liked his minutes. I mean, obviously, what you're seeing is a little bit of missed timing from time off. But if you look at the glass half full----"
Spoelstra let out a quick chuckle before continuing.
"--That's what you can't teach in this game," he said. "He's in the right spots. It's just a matter of time before those plays be made. And we don't have anybody else on our roster who can make those type of plays."
Spoelstra made sure to add that he simply told Oden, "see you tomorrow," and repeated his familiar refrain that "we're not going to fast track it."
"But I was obviously very encouraged by tonight," the coach said.
And, at this point, unable to entirely hide that enthusiasm.
Nor are the Heat hiding Oden from the press anymore. That's in part due to the league's media rules (he must be available if he's active). But it's not like Heat officials are standing over him. He's just part of a team now, same as everyone else. That, incidentally, is what he's aspired to be since, due to circumstances largely beyond his control, he didn't live up to franchise player status in Portland.
So, Thursday, after posting a stat line of five points, five rebounds, one block and three fouls—showing some agility on a lefty hook and some rust when mistiming caroms—he took nearly six minutes of questions from the media, while ice calmed his knees.
He spoke of it still being a "process," especially when it comes to his timing: "It's not that great right now....Most of the time I'm coming down, the rebound's going right over my head....But I'm working on it. The more time I'm out there, the more minutes I play, I think it's going to come."
He spoke of knowing his role: "Get to the Bird Box, get to the baseline, set picks, you know. I think that's kind of where I'm at. It's a good system and I'm starting to learn it. The more I'm on the court, the more I'm going to get more comfortable with it, too. So just when the time comes, and the more games I play, everything's going to start falling into place."
He spoke of his friends and family watching: "Miami's always on TV, so they get to see it. And it's good. Everybody's positive, and that's a good thing, because they know I'm pretty hard on myself."
He spoke of the potential of playing Roy Hibbert down the road: "I'm a big guy, I'm the biggest guy on this team, so I'm guessing that would be a good reason to have me in there, to try to guard him. He's tough, he's a load down there, so I've got to get myself better, because we do play him, he is a load."
He spoke of trying to stay patient: "With what I'm been through, I've got nothing but patience now. It was a tough, long road, and after four years, what's a couple of games? So, to make sure I'm out there, and the plan that I have, I don't mind waiting."
And that's the right attitude, even though he added, at one point in the interview, that "it's time to start ramping it up."
Already, Oden is ahead of schedule, playing 29 minutes prior to the All-Star break, with several more appearances likely to come. He's made so much progress that suddenly, his knees aren't the ones everyone is talking about. Those belong to Dwyane Wade, who has missed the past four games, while Oden has played in three of them.
Miami, assured of no worse than the No. 2 seed in the weak East, need not rush Oden any more than they rush Wade.
Even as some of the restrictions are removed, some restraint is still required. That's not only in the way that Spoelstra uses Oden, but in what his teammates think of him. He's still so fragile that whatever he brings will be a bonus. That may be easier advised than accomplished, considering the promise of his progress to this point.
Chris Bosh, so often burdened as the Heat's only true "big," has already benefited from Spoelstra's frequent insertion of Chris Andersen alongside him—a lineup combination that has been exceptional so far. Now, Bosh is also getting time with Oden, whom he tells to "just go out there and be big." Bosh believes that as Oden's conditioning improves, "he's going to help this team out tremendously."
LeBron James praised Oden's activity, even when it didn't result in a positive play, due to those timing troubles.
"The great thing that I love seeing him is when he jumps, and he lands, and he runs back on defense," James said. "Or he jumps and he lands, and he finishes a shot or whatever the case may be, he had a nice left-hand jump hook. Every time he jumps up. Even the one where the ball was saved under our basket by our bench, and (Pau) Gasol ended up getting it, I saw him fly in and try to get that, and he landed and continued to play. That is positive, for him, for us as a team, for us as a franchise, to just continue to make these baby steps in coming back."
A little less restrained.
A little less restricted.
So long as everyone avoids reckless, there may not be regret.
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