Greg Oden played in his third consecutive game and fifth overall this season, his first with the Miami Heat. In 13 minutes of play - his most significant amount after nearly a four-year absence from the NBA - Oden amounted for a paltry stat line; 3 points, 2 rebounds, 1 blocked shot.
Statistically, Oden's impact is negligible but, as "Sir Charles" and others have suggested, his continued development may be the key component in Miami's playoff aspirations.
By analyzing G.O.'s play versus the Spurs, we can see what he does well, what might need improving and how much of a factor he'll be in the pursuit of a third consecutive championship.
First Half Analysis
Oden checked in at the 7:22 mark in the second quarter, with the score tied at 38. With injuries forcing San Antonio to reshuffle their lineup, their primary big man was the undersized Jeff Ayres, a 6'9" center in his fourth year (first with the Spurs).
G.O. immediately takes a position under the hoop and forces Ayres to commit a foul, hitting 1-of-2 free throws. Moreover, Tim Duncan, getting a needed rest, was re-inserted into the game. With Tiago Splitter - the regular Spurs starter at center - out of the game, Oden's impact on San Antonio's lineup moves is instant. Against younger, bigger teams (like the Indiana Pacers) this may not be a factor, but against an older, injury-depleted Spurs team, it definitely was.
In his first defensive series, Oden starts off guarding Ayres, staying on him outside of the paint. When Duncan gets the ball and puts up a shot near the hoop, G.O. rotates quickly, blocks the shot and corrals the rebound. No real analysis there; Greg's a natural, long-limbed shot blocker. Even a wily veteran like Duncan, perhaps the greatest power forward of all time, will have trouble against Oden. His spring may not be what it was (and likely never will be again), but he's still effective at altering shots.
On offense, G.O. stands just inside the free throw line when he's fed the ball by Ray Allen. Oden makes a strong move to the hoop but can't finish. Duncan was credited with a block on that play, although it's not evident by looking at the replay. One can only hope that Greg will be able to hold on to the ball tighter in the future, finishing the dunk and perhaps getting a foul call in the process. Still, it was a forceful move and an encouraging one for the future.
Oden picks up Duncan on the next defensive series and, as TD starts his drive to the lane, switches with Chris Bosh (guarding Ayres). Duncan is fully-committed at this point and, despite the switch to the faster Bosh, continues driving to the hoop. However, LeBron James has lagged off his man (Boris Diaw, standing in the corner where Spurs' dreams go to die), steals the ball from Duncan and proceeds to do this:
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Duncan may not have noticed the switch or didn't care. Either way, he minimized Oden's (and Bosh's) ability to make the successful switch, and it resulted in a turnover and 3-point play. On the next defensive play, it happened again. Oden was guarding Aron Baynes and Bosh was on Duncan. Diaw, with the ball and James on him, starts dribbling to the right and draws Bosh away from TD. James didn't switch leaving Duncan wide open as Diaw throws him a quick pass. But Oden saw it coming the whole way, left Baynes and stole the pass. Great footwork and even better recognition by G.O. that time.
The Heat now lead, 44-41, and are back on defense again, this time with Tony Parker running the high screen and roll with Duncan. Parker gets past his man (Mario Chalmers), slips past Bosh and cuts quickly to the lane, only to find the 7-footer Oden waiting. Parker is skilled enough to adjust the play, and dishes it out to Diaw (again in the corner), as James had come into the lane to attack Parker. LeBron was reacting naturally, and, although Diaw hit the 3-pointer, it wasn't a broken assignment so much as being unfamiliar with having an actual shot blocker on the floor. In time, the comfort level will increase and Oden will be relied on more and more to alter/erase shots in the lane, resulting in turnovers and fast-break offense that have been key to Miami's success.
With 3:30 left in the half and the score now 46-44, Dwyane Wade gets tripped up with Manu Ginobili on the baseline but finds the big target Oden in the paint. G.O. finishes with this strong dunk:
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Miami leads, 48-44. What a relief it must be for Miami's cutters (Chalmers, Wade, James and the speedy Norris Cole) to find this massive wall of a man, waiting in the lane to bail them out if they get stuck on the baseline or are able to draw the double-team.
But Oden's size isn't just a factor on offense. Ginobili misses an 18-foot jumper at the other end and the ball caroms off the rim, along the baseline. Duncan, boxed out by Oden, has the best angle at the rebound but, by the time it takes him to merely get around G.O., the ball has sailed out of bounds. On a play a minute later, Duncan misses a 4-foot hook shot as he adjusts to Oden's long arms. Greg's size has impeded a Parker drive on one play, kept Duncan from rebounding on another one and kept him from hitting a close-range shot.
So this is what it's like to have a huge presence in the middle again, one Miami fans haven't seen since Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning.
After a Ray Allen 3-pointer, the half ends with Miami up 58-50.
Second Half Analysis
Greg returns to action with 5:49 left in the fourth quarter and the game nearly-locked up with Miami up 106-80. Starters on both sides are on the bench at this point and G.O. is being guarded by Baynes when he gets back in the game.
Oden misses his third shot attempt, this time a 9-foot jump shot that he simply shot over the 6'10 Baynes, who was hunched down in anticipation. Baynes expected to be backed down by the much larger Oden and was unprepared for a jumper over his head. In his limited NBA action, Greg has never shown off a mid-range game but, with the game clearly in-hand, he might have been willing to just let one fly because, y'know, he's just happy to be playing at all after four years.
With 4:19 left and the Heat up 19, Oden made his most explosive move of the day. Cole had the ball and was looking to feed G.O., being guarded by the smaller Baynes. But Greg caught the ball out of the paint, turned to the basket and screened Cole's defender (Othyus Jeffers) in the process. Now with space between him and Baynes (who had lagged off to pick up Cole), Oden put the ball on the floor and drove to the hoop, planting himself and making contact with Baynes, who has since rotated to pick up G.O.
Baynes was sent to the floor (outside the restricted area under the basket) and was assessed a blocking foul as well (although one referee called it an offensive foul on Oden, veteran referee Ken Mauer overturned the call). The whole play lasted three seconds but, for Oden, that quick, decisive cut to the hoop was years in the making. Very encouraging.
The rest of the game was sloppy, a combination of lackluster play from guys usually stuck on the bench and a game that was clearly out of reach for San Antonio. Oden pulled down an additional rebound off a Cole miss and drew a quick foul from Matt Bonner in the process. The lead was cut down to 12, but Miami held on, 113-101.
Final Analysis and Future Projections
Start with the obvious - Oden's still very rusty and a little slow. However, he's never been very quick as a professional. It will be more important for him to continue developing his natural instincts and sense of timing. As a professional and as a veteran, G.O. will grow by recognizing his faults and capitalizing on these gifts to make up for his physical deficiencies.
And, of course, he's a 7-footer that weighs over 260 pounds, an imposing force that takes up space, clogs the lane defensively and can greatly affect an opposing team's offensive rhythm.
If his coaches and teammates are to be believed, it looks like Oden is well on his way to being a regular contributor. Future matchups will dictate when and if Oden enters a game. But it's possible that he could wind up starting, and likely replacing Shane Battier for most of the first quarter, when taller lineups might put Miami in an early deficit. The Heat featured that potential lineup yesterday - Oden, Bosh, James, Wade and Chalmers - for nearly seven minutes in the second quarter and was able to build a five-point lead as a result. As Wade's knees and Oden's conditioning continue to improve, those five could be a potent lineup.
Although Duncan and the undersized Spurs provided an interesting matchup for G.O., Wednesday's opponent could be a truer test. The Oklahoma City Thunder have a big starter at center in Kendric Perkins, as well as two quick, athletic backups - Nick Collison and rookie Steven Adams - that could limit Greg's effectiveness. Adams, the New Zealand product from the University of Pittsburgh, is developing a cult-like following in OKC for his physical and fearless style of play. While Oden should be able to out-muscle Perkins, but the quick, agressive Adams and Collison will be defensive challenges.
As Miami has maintained all along, patience is the key for Greg Oden's development. He's unlikely to realize the full potential that led to being selected as the first pick in the 2007 draft.
But with his natural gifts and increased court awareness, he could become an NBA champion.