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.

Lakers lock up No. 1 seed in West with win against Jazz

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Anthony Davis had 42 points and 12 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs by beating the Utah Jazz 116-108 on Monday night.

The Lakers (51-15) own a six-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Clippers and have five seeding games let before starting their first playoff run since 2013.

“If you’re winning enough games to secure the No. 1 seed, you’re building the right habits that are going to be necessary for you to win in the playoffs,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Obviously we have bigger aspirations than the No. 1 seed, but we are proud of the accomplishment and we’ll enjoy it while we’re getting ready to get our group ready for the playoffs.”

Utah (42-25) has clinched a playoff berth and is fifth in the West, a half-game behind Houston and a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City.

Davis’ final basket resulted in a 4-point play with 42 seconds left, as he sank a 3-pointer while getting fouled by Rudy Gobert and made the ensuing free throw to give the Lakers a 114-104 lead.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell answered with a 4-point play of his own that cut the margin to 114-106 with 36 seconds remaining, but the Jazz couldn’t get any closer. Davis made two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to wrap up the scoring.

LeBron James scored 22 points, Dwight Howard had 11 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 10 for the Lakers.

Mitchell scored 33 and Mike Conley had 24 for Utah. Gobert added 16 points and 13 rebounds for the Jazz.

The Lakers were coming off a 107-92 loss to Toronto in which Davis shot just 2 of 7 and scored 14 points. Davis was much more active Monday right from the start, as he scored 13 points and shot 6 of 14 in the first quarter alone.

Davis had 24 points by halftime, marking the 20th time this season he’s scored at least 20 points in a half.

“Coach just told me to be more aggressive,” Davis said. “He felt like, and I felt like too, that I just kind of played into Toronto’s defense, accepted the double-team. I was making the right plays, but I still have to be aggressive at the same time.”

Utah stayed close and only trailed 58-56 at halftime because it got its own stellar start from Mitchell, who scored 21 points in the first two periods.

Mitchell then connected on a 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run by Utah to open the second half.

But the Jazz got increasingly careless with the basketball as the third quarter progressed, enabling the Lakers to seize control of the game. The Lakers scored 14 straight points and went on a 19-2 run late in the third quarter.

“When they turn the pressure up, we’ve got to be able to execute even better,” Mitchell said. “We turned the ball over way too many times. They did a great job of taking us out of our actions. … We went up six, they turned it up even more and next thing you know, we’re down 12 or whatever.”

Even after Utah’s Emmanuel Mudiay snapped that run by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer, the Jazz still trailed 86-76 heading into the final period.

The Lakers stayed in front the rest of the way.

Watch Shake Milton drain game-winning three, lift 76ers past Spurs

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How do you like Shake Milton now?

After a rough first game where he exchanged words with Joel Embiid on the sidelines, Milton bounced back and hit the game-winning three against the Spurs Monday night.

With the Sixers down two and 10.4 seconds left, Milton was inbounding the ball from the side. He got the ball into a well covered Al Horford who gave it right back, but Milton’s defender Dejounte Murray, sagged off to prevent a lob into Joel Embiid, and that left Milton open.

Ballgame. The Sixers go on to win 132-130.

Philadelphia has split its first two in the bubble.

This was a bigger blow to the Spurs, who are in a race for the eighth/ninth seed in the West and a shot at the play-in series. The Spurs had won their first two in Orlando but are now tied with the Trail Blazers for the nine seed, with New Orleans just half-a-game back after its win. It’s a Battle Royal in the West and this kind of loss could come back to bite San Antonio.

More Zion Williamson, more defense gets Pelicans first bubble win

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For two games the Pelicans played matador defense on the perimeter — Ole! — while the world was asking, “where’s Zion?”

With their playoff dreams on the line Monday night, both showed up.

Zion got to play 25 minutes and scored 23 points with seven rebounds, his attacking the rim opening up the Pelicans’ offense. More importantly, Jrue Holiday brought the defensive on Ja Morant — staying in front, cutting off his drives, and helping hold the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year to 5-of-21 shooting — sparking a night where the Pelicans held a high-powered Grizzlies offense to less than a point per possession.

The result was a 109-99 Pelicans win, their first in the bubble.

Brandon Ingram said after the Pelicans second loss in Orlando they would likely have to win out in their final six games to make the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not, but they have to rack up a lot of wins and this was a big first step. With the victory, New Orleans is 2.5 games back of eighth seed Memphis, and half-a-game game back of ninth-seed Spurs (the eighth and ninth seeds in the West almost certainly will be in a play-in series). There is still hope.

After a relatively unimpressive first two games for Zion — leading to whispers around the league about his conditioning and if he should be playing — he looked more like his best self Monday night. Even connecting with Lonzo Ball to finish a half-court alley-oop.

Zion wasn’t in peak form, going 9-of-21 from the floor and looking winded t points, but he was out on the floor and when he is his gravity opens up everything else. Brandon Ingram led the way with 24 points, including some clutch buckets late and a lot of shot creation. J.J. Redick had 16 off the bench.

The offense was the sizzle, but the Pelicans’ defense was the steak in this game. Alvin Gentry talked about the team defensive strategy on Morant, via Christian Clark of the Times-Picayune.

“We tried to keep him (Morant) out the paint as much as possible, so we gave up some 3s. But luckily for us, he only made one of them [1-of-10]. I thought we did a good job overall defensively. That was the difference in the game. We had our moments in the game offensively where we had great ball movement. But our defense is what won us the game.”

The Pelicans have to bring that energy on a back-to-back — they play the Kings’ tomorrow. Every game is still vital for them, this is a playoff sprint, not a race. Ingram was right, they can’t afford any more losses.

Because of their 3.5 game lead entering the restart, the Grizzlies are safe for now despite an 0-3 start in the bubble — losing every game by single digits. Morant is a future star, Jaren Jackson Jr. might be the best player on this team in five years (he had 22 points on the night), but this is a young team that is not consistent. It needs more shooting and that was evident tonight. They also miss Tyus Jones at backup point guard a lot.

The challenge for the Grizzlies is the five games they have left: the Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks. That’s a lot of brutal games lined up in a row, and Memphis needs to find some wins in there.

Michael Porter Jr. has breakout game, drops 37, Nuggets top Thunder in OT

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Michael Porter Jr. scored a career-high 37 points and Nikola Jokic had a triple-double to help the Denver Nuggets top the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-113 in overtime on Monday.

Porter, who averages just 7.5 points, had the big performance in only his third start of the season.

“He has got tremendous size, length, he can score the ball, he’s got soft touch and he does so (scores) in a very efficient manner,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “He can also rebound at a very high level. Tonight, we saw all those things put together.”

Porter made 12 of 16 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds. His previous career high was 25 points.

“All I’ve got to focus on is bringing the energy and the effort, lock in on defense and the rest will take care of itself,” Porter said.

Jokic had 30 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists. He scored 13 points in the fourth quarter and overtime to help Denver strengthen its hold on third place in the Western Conference standings.

It was a key win for the Nuggets, who were missing three starters. Jamal Murray sat out with left hamstring tightness, forward Will Barton sat out with left knee soreness and guard Gary Harris sat out with a strained right hip.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 24 points, Chris Paul had 23 and Danilo Gallinari added 20 for the Thunder, who also were short-handed. Thunder coach Billy Donovan said Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City’s No. 3 scorer for the season, left the bubble to join his wife for the birth of their second child.

The game was close throughout. Denver’s Monte Morris was fouled with 6 seconds remaining, and he made both free throws to give the Nuggets a 109-108 lead. Paul missed the first and made the second of two free throws with 2.9 seconds remaining to tie the game at 109. Denver’s Troy Daniels missed a floater from near the free throw line at the buzzer, and the game went to overtime.

In the extra period, Denver outscored Oklahoma City 12-4 and held the Thunder to one field goal.

“In the overtime, I thought we played terrific on both ends of the floor,” Malone said.