Greg Oden waits for lucky break that may not come

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CHARLOTTE — The man sitting at the end of the bench knows he is not going to play. The warm-up jacket and pants will not come off. So he just sits, plaintive look on his face, and he watches with an expression that almost never changed. His long legs stretch out almost into the court. Every now and again, someone in the stands will point at him.

“That guy,” a friend will say to a friend or a parent will say to a child, “was once the first pick in the NBA Draft. He was going to be the next big star.”

Yes, Greg Oden was the first pick in the NBA Draft. Yes, he was going to be the game’s next big star.  Yes, he had everything — size, strength, balance, a defensive presence, a sense of the game. Yes, yes, yes, he was all those things, his future was unlimited … but that was many injuries ago. MANY injuries ago.  Nostalgia and regret often mingle.

Now he sits here on the end of the bench. Sure, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has told him to be ready to get in there, that all players must be ready if the Heat is going to repeat as champions again. Oden doesn’t say much but he says he will stay ready.

He also knows that LeBron James continuously makes the point that the team’s depth — and specifically having Greg Oden on that bench — will play a huge role in these playoffs at some point. Oden says he will be prepared for the moment.

Greg Oden also knows that he is not going to play.

Sometimes there is nothing left to say except life is unfair.

* * *

Let’s start with the end because it is easier to pinpoint. We know the exact date. The end for the Greg Oden experiment came on March 26, 2014. That was the day that every hope and illusion about this latest comeback shattered.

Everybody wanted that comeback. For him. He deserved it. Oden had missed almost four years of basketball when Miami signed him for the minimum before the season began. He deserved good things.

And this looked like a good setup. Nobody expected Greg Oden to suddenly be the superstar everyone expected six or seven years ago. But, in the least, he looked like potential Kryptonite for Indiana’s big man Roy Hibbert. You will remember that last year the Heat had a ferocious seven-game series with Indiana and they could do nothing at all with Hibbert, who averaged 22 points and 10 boards for the series. It didn’t matter what Spoelstra tried, the Heat did not have a Hibbert answer.

Well Greg Oden is a 7-footer, 250-plus pounds, he could pound on Hibbert and weigh on him and foul him and frustrate him. Sure, if Oden recaptured some of his lost talent, everyone would cheer. But, at the least, he could slow Hibbert.

That dream ended on March 26. The Heat had slowly worked Oden into the lineup. From the start of the new year, they put him in a few games for five- and six-minute stretches just to get him some time on the court. Ten days before the big game against Indiana, they put him in the starting lineup. He flashed a few positive signs. He scored six, grabbed three rebounds, blocked a couple of shots at Cleveland. He made both his shots and blocked two more against Memphis.

And on March 26, he started against Indiana — a homecoming for Oden, who went to High School in Indianapolis. Everyone was watching this time. And … lets just say it did not go well. If it had been a fight, they would have stopped it. Well, in truth, they did stop it. Hibbert did everything he wanted for six minutes, Oden was utterly helpless, and after six minutes Spoelstra could not watch anymore. He pulled Oden and did not put him back in … for three weeks.

In fact, Oden has played in just one game since the end — 13 uninspired minutes in an entirely meaningless game against a putrid Philadelphia team. He has not played again. The official explanation for Oden’s disappearance was that he has had “back spasms.” He undoubtedly has had back spasms. But …

“Terrible,” Oden told reporters after the Hibbert game. He knew. He was heartbroken. This haunted pro basketball career of his just won’t ever let Greg Oden breathe.

* * *

In the beginning, Greg Oden was the franchise. He was the next in line of dominant NBA centers after Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and Shaq. He was big, he was strong, he was balanced, he worked hard, he blocked shots, he was the man. When you asked around the NBA about the first pick in the 2007 draft — the choice being manchild Greg Oden or scoring machine Kevin Durant — about seven out of 10 said Oden.

Why Oden? Well, some thought he was a SAFER pick. Durant was viewed as a one-dimensional scorer. Oden had a bigger game.

Some thought he was the WISER pick because he had already filled out. People forget: Durant made news shortly before the draft because he couldn’t bench-press all seven Harry Potter books (actually it was 185 pounds he couldn’t press) and scouts could just imagine him getting backed all the way down to the beer concession stand. Oden meanwhile looked like he was 10 years older than his age, even as a freshman he looked like a man going back and playing with the college kids, and there was no need to imagine who he would become.

And some though he was a BETTER pick than Durant because great centers tend to lead teams to championships while great scoring forwards often do not.

Of course, there were counterarguments; there were some people who passionately believed Durant was the right choice. But in the end, Portland did what most teams would have done with the first pick and took Oden. There was some irony here; Portland brought a special history to the draft having already taken an injury-prone center (Sam Bowie) over a college super-scorer (Michael Jordan) and had never quite lived that down. But, hey, that could not happen again, right?

Before Oden played his first NBA game, he had microfracture surgery on his right knee. Before his first game. He missed the entire 2007-08 season. While Durant poured in points his rookie year, the Bowie-Jordan comparison was being made ad nauseam.

It should be noted: The story was certainly not in stone yet. It was just one injury, and one thing that Portland loved about Oden was his dedication and work ethic. Before he entered his surgery, he reportedly told Portland GM Kevin Pritchard again and again how sorry he was for letting the team down and how desperate he was to come back. “We picked the right kid,” Pritchard told reporters after that surgery. “He cares about this organization.”

Oden came back in 2008. In his first game – HIS FIRST GAME – Andrew Bynum landed on his foot and he missed two weeks. But then Oden started to show the promise. In his fifth NBA game, he scored 22, grabbed 10 boards, blocked two shots. He became a starter in Game 9, and while he was inconsistent — rookies will be inconsistent — he had bright moments. He grabbed 13 boards against Detroit. He had a double-double at Washington. Fifteen rebounds against the Clippers. Sixteen points 10 boards against Toronto.

On January 12, he went to Chicago and dominated — 17 points, 13 rebounds. Milwaukee couldn’t stop him — 24 points, 15 rebounds. He blocked six shots against the Knicks. Yes, finally, it was coming together.

And then, just as he started to feel good, he bumped knees with Corey Maggette. This time he cracked the patella in his left knee. He was out for more than a month. But the bigger problem was that he now had some trouble with BOTH knees. And that, any big man will tell you, is a bad, bad sign.

In December of the next season, Oden fractured his left patella. Everyone said it had nothing to do with the earlier injury but, at this point, it didn’t matter. The guy just could not stay healthy. He was out for another season. Oden announced that this time he wasn’t coming back until he was ready, until he was fully healthy and ready to deliver on his promise.

One year later, instead, he announced that he was having microfracture surgery on his left knee. That put him out for another year.

The next year, he ha a couple more knee surgeries, putting him out for another year.

Then he said he needed a year to recover and be fully healthy.

When the Miami Heat signed him before this season, he had played in just 82 games in five years. He worked insanely hard to come back, time after time, he didn’t deserve all those setbacks. But, as the line in Unforgiven goes, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” And you know the end already.

* * *

Two or three weeks ago, people were openly questioning the Heat — they were playing pretty lousy. But in the NBA, nothing really matters until the playoffs and the Heat was the only team to sweep its opening round series. The champs suddenly look healthy and rested and they are enjoying watching the best teams in the East flounder and their own path open up.

Miami not only looks healthy now, it looks overstocked. The end of the Heat bench is loaded with guys you know even if you are only a mild NBA fan. There’s Shane Battier, the 35-year-old defensive specialist who has played a huge role in the Heat’s previous two championships. There’s Udonis Haslem, another major player in the championship runs, who every now and again goes into games and cannot be stopped. There’s Rashard Lewis, once one of the top scorers in the NBA.

The truth is, the Heat can’t use them all. The NBA is a game of match-ups, a game of rhythm, and Erik Spoelstra is not bluffing when he says he needs everyone to be ready. There could come a moment for any of them.

But … probably not for Greg Oden. For one thing, the man he was probably brought in to stop — Roy Hibbert — is in the middle of a nightmare playoffs and his Pacers could get eliminated as early as Thursday. For another, Oden’s body just won’t let him be the player he might have been. He’s just 26, but his knees are 50, and while Kevin Durant will probably win the MVP Award this year, Greg Oden will probably not leave the Miami bench.

Oden says he will keep waiting though. He says he has not lost hope. That might be the most miraculous part of all.

Suns keep winning, T.J. Warren keeps scoring, Nuggets outlast Jazz in 2OT

Suns star Devin Booker vs. Heat
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The Suns are unbeatable. T.J Warren is unstoppable. And the NBA is unapologetically fun.

Just another day in the NBA bubble.

Phoenix – already the NBA’s only undefeated team at Disney World – moved to 5-0 in seeding games with a 119-112 win over the Heat.

The Suns are still a half game outside play-in position with a tougher closing stretch than the ninth-place Trail Blazers.* But Phoenix sure is making the race interesting, and Portland isn’t closing the door.

*Both teams still play the 76ers and Mavericks. The Suns also play the Thunder. The Trail Blazers’ last seeding game is against the Nets.

Whether or not they make the playoffs, the Suns should absolutely be encouraged by this stretch. Unlike an early-season surge, when Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio carried big loads, Phoenix’s young players are leading the charge now. Devin Booker scored 35 points tonight. Jevon Carter added 20 points on 6-of-8 3-point shooting off the bench. Deandre Ayton (18 points and 12 rebounds) continues to impress. Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson have steadily contributed at forward.

Expectations are rising for next season.

First, the Suns aren’t ready for this season to end soon.

All the best bubble stories were in Phoenix last season.

Pacers forward T.J. Warren – whom the Suns dumped with a draft-pick sweetener last summer – continued his scoring binge with 39 points in a 116-111 win over the Pacers.

Warren could always get buckets. But he has been on another level lately.

The Nuggets (somewhat safely in third place) and Jazz (who might prefer to finish sixth) had few obvious reasons to care about beating each other.

But then the game got going, and both teams’ competitive juices took over.

Donovan Mitchell drove for a layup to force overtime. Nikola Jokic converted inside to force double overtime. Finally, Jamal Murray – who scored 23 points in his first game of the resumption – put Denver up for good with a jumper then 3-pointer in a 134-132 victory.

Bubble games have featured such great energy and competitiveness.

Damian Lillard to Paul George on Instagram: ‘keep switching teams … running from the grind’

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Damian Lillard missed a pair of clutch free throws in the Trail Blazers’ loss to the Clippers today. Patrick Beverley and Paul George let Lillard hear about it. Lillard boasted in his post-game interview about his series-winning shots over Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and George’s Thunder in 2019 (which literally came over George).

Now, the conflict has spilled onto Instagram.

Bleacher Report:

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Dame, PG and Pat Bev went at it in our comments 👀

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George:

And you getting sent home this year 🤣 respect✊

Beverley:

Cancun on 3😂😂😂

Lillard:

keep switching teams … running from the grind . You boys is chumps

George:

@damianlillard respect that too in my stint with my first team I had more success… Dame time running out g

George did lead the Pacers to Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals, losing to the eventual-champion Heat. Indiana also pushed Miami to Game 6 in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals. George doesn’t get enough credit for those achievements.

Though Lillard’s Trail Blazers peaked in the 2019 Western Conference finals, they got swept by the team that lost in the NBA Finals.

But George forced his way out of Indiana despite that being the only place he could earn a super-max contract. He also re-signed with the Thunder, announcing his plan at a big party thrown by Russell Westbrook, then requested a trade to join Kawhi Leonard on the Clippers only a year later.

Lillard just has different sensibilities. He said he’d stick with the Trail Blazers rather than join a super team. Lillard even talked disparagingly about players who get pressured into bypassing super-max contracts in order to be viewed as a winner elsewhere.

So, this clash makes sense.

Maybe it got too personal for George, who has overcome major injury and returned even better. He surely doesn’t want to be called a chump at this point in his career.

But I disagree with George’s championships-only argument. There is plenty of room for major achievements that fall short of a title – like the Pacers’ deep playoff runs George cited. And Lillard’s series-winning shot last year. George was the casualty on that play. There’s no way around it, and it’s likely still a sore spot. That was a high-profile moment that supersedes missed free throws in a seeding game.

Lillard and George can go back-and-forth about their accomplishments. Both have done plenty in this league. Their individual routes to success show their contrasting values. Neither are wrong. They’re just different.

That’s perfectly fine and – when it leads to spats like this – fun.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.