MIAMI — There's been so much attention on Greg Oden's unreliable lower extremities, especially in the four years, two months and 18 days between his NBA starts, that few have focused on the stronger parts of his anatomy.
Like his hands.
"He has great hands, great hands," Mario Chalmers said, following Miami's 93-79 win against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday. "Surprising for a big man like that, but he has great hands."
Even with Oden's timing off at times since joining Miami, it has been rare when he hasn't gotten a grip, as was the case during a paint scrum early in Sunday's third quarter. But the effort was certainly there, as it has been in all of his 91 minutes on the floor so far this season.
So this is what Chalmers was thinking, as the ball somehow found itself all the way out to him, and as he saw the close out coming.
"Got to reward the big man," Chalmers said.
The man who was easy to spot.
"Well, I'm pretty big, so I hope so," Oden said.
Chalmers had a hope, too.
"I was just hoping he was going to be ready for the ball and dunk it," Chalmers said.
Oden was prepared, and his slam gave the Heat a 44-42 lead. And while he wouldn't play for much longer, finishing with five points and five rebounds in 13 minutes, his latest milestone—a start in place of the broken-nosed LeBron James—was one of two promising, critical developments for the Heat's latest title chase.
James will be fine, after all. He's scheduled to be fitted for a new mask on Monday and will likely play against the New York Knicks on Thursday, after spending Sunday working from a floor seat. ("He didn't shut up," Wade said. "He coached a lot. He came up with some great things that we ended up doing in the fourth quarter.")
But if Miami is to overcome newly-fortified Indiana and the best of the West, it will need the knees of Oden and Dwyane Wade to hold up, so they can offer something along the lines of what they did Sunday.
More on Wade in stories to come. He was exceptional again, and now has 47 points, 17 rebounds and 17 assists in his past two games.
But, for the purposes of this piece, start with Oden...
That may not happen for a while, but it's nice for Erik Spoelstra to know it's a viable option, particularly against the powerful front lines of the Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets.
"I just told him as he walked in for the walkthrough: 'Hey, by the way, you didn't play against OKC, but you're starting tonight,'" Spoelstra said. "He smiled. He knows how this team works."
If you're around the team at all, you're learning how Oden's personality works. He doesn't get exceedingly excited about everything and tends to be tough on himself. Last Tuesday in Dallas, after he spent the All-Star break at home in Ohio, I asked what he was happiest about: "Me, nothing. In my head, I got a long ways to go..."
Then he played five minutes, and none in Oklahoma City.
So, sure, this was a step, even if he was just a one-day substitute for James.
It was against a team featuring the relentless Joakim Noah, whom he dominated in the 2007 NCAA final (25 points and 12 rebounds to eight points and three rebounds), albeit to no avail as Florida rolled over Ohio State. And while Noah was statistically superior on this night (20 points, 15 rebounds), Oden wasn't overwhelmed while out there, whether guarding the former Gator or Carlos Boozer. The Bulls scored 18 points in his 13 minutes, and had one of their seven 24-second violations.
"He's an active player for somebody that big," Spoelstra said. "He makes multiple efforts, he gives you extra possession. And he's very intelligent, so he has a pretty good grasp of what we want to do and how we want to play already."
Now he has a start under his belt.
And it's just February. He's ahead of the team's schedule, even if he's sometimes felt impatient.
"It felt nice," Oden said of starting. "I just hope I made somewhat of an impact. We won the game, so I would like to say I did."
So will he relent and admit he's progressed?
"I mean, I know the plays a little bit better," Oden said. "And I'm starting to feel a little bit more comfortable out there, and I think guys are starting to feel comfortable with me out there. It's still something that we can build on. But I just think comfort level and being able to put me in the starting lineup, it showed some confidence in me."
"Just for me, each game getting better and walking off healthy," Oden said "They're all milestones for me. It's been a long road so every one is a good thing for me."
He's not near the end of it.
Still, at the least, he looks ready to give the Heat a hand.