Game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals will be remembered for two things: the blistering shooting of the San Antonio Spurs en route to a 111-92 win over the Miami Heat and Kawhi Leonard’s breakout 29-point performance.
But something else happened late in the fourth quarter that proved perhaps the evening’s most strangely somber event:
Greg Oden logged the final two minutes for the Heat. The game by then was well out of reach; most of Miami’s fans long since gone.
For Oden, though, those 120 seconds must’ve been a bittersweet vindication indeed.
Drafted No. 1 by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2007 NBA Draft—one spot ahead of Kevin Durant—Oden has sustained a series of devastating knee injuries that very nearly curtailed his career for good. By the time the Heat signed the 7’0” center ahead of the 2013-14 season, Oden had missed three full years in recovery.
But, for as much as Miami’s gesture was one of grace and good will, it also carried with it a strategic potential, as the Miami Herald’s Josh Walfish noted back in March:
There are clearly many people in his corner, but whether he will admit to it or not, Oden is the centerpiece of a grand experiment for the Heat, which is looking for some size to combat the big bodies Indiana and some of the teams in the Western Conference possess.
Whether this experiment succeeds or fails depends on how Oden plays during crucial moments in May and June. Yet, there are signs the 7-footer will be able to provide the defensive protection inside the Heat is searching for to help it win its third NBA championship in a row.
Oden never quite materialized as Miami’s secret weapon in waiting. Still, his comeback stands as both a testament to modern medicine and proof that, while bad things often happen to good people, sometimes the ledger can even out, even if it’s just a little bit.
"Greg Oden," Spoelstra told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman, "is one of the biggest success stories in this league, and unfortunately people are only judging him by the fact of how many minutes he plays.”
As for Oden, these Finals are all about keeping things in perspective, about enjoying every moment on the sport’s biggest stage.
"You play to get here," Oden told Winderman. "This is the ultimate goal, winning the Finals. I mean, for me, winning, that's what you play the game for, is to win. So me not playing a lot and getting here and still getting a ring, I'm still happy."
For Oden and his Heat teammates to make good on that goal, they’ll have to bounce back quickly from Tuesday’s jarring defeat.
Should the Heat pull off the comeback, history will likely say scant little about Oden’s role. In fact, Tuesday’s two minutes may be the only action he sees all series.
Still, not even history can take those two minutes away from Oden, or the sense of pride Miami no doubt has in helping make a dream once deferred feel real again.