INDIANAPOLIS -- Greg Oden was an objective bystander at the time, but he remembers the series vividly.
Between the workouts in hopes of reviving his NBA career and the trips back to his college campus at Ohio State, Oden made time in his schedule to closely watch the Eastern Conference finals last season.
LeBron James and the Heat were in a back-and-forth flurry with the Indiana Pacers, and Oden couldn’t help but to notice how hard Miami was struggling to deal with 7-foot-2 headache Roy Hibbert.
“It was one of the best [stretches] I’ve seen him play,” Oden said of Hibbert, who averaged 22.1 points and 10.2 rebounds in the conference finals. “He definitely was in a groove when that was going on.”
The Heat won the series with a Game 7 blowout in Miami, but they never lost sight of the growing impact and threat Hibbert poses for the two-time defending champions. The Heat signed Oden and invested in his comeback from a four-year layoff with hopes he can help to disrupt Hibbert’s groove.
For some reason, when Hibbert has faced Miami the past few seasons, he tends to channel his inner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. With Oden, who is expected to make his sixth start of the season in Wednesday’s game against Indiana, Miami can counter Hibbert with someone he can pick on closer to his own size.
If Oden ever doubted his purpose for being in a Heat uniform, James offered a clear reminder after the team wrapped up Tuesday’s practice and prepared for the flight to Indiana.
“I think he knows why we brought him here,” James said of Oden. “I think he looks at it as an opportunity to see how far he’s come along as well. It’s nothing personal between him and Hibbert at all. But he wants to see where he can measure up at this point in his career, and this point in the season for us. [Hibbert] wore on us. His numbers speak for themselves. He controlled the paint in our seven-game series with his scoring, rebounding and blocking shots. So we had to bulk up. [Oden] helps that.”
Because Oden spent the first half of the season working on his conditioning and strengthening his knees after multiple career-threatening surgeries, he was unavailable when the Heat and Pacers split their first two meetings of the regular season. Oden made his season debut Jan. 15 in Washington after a four-year league absence, and he was inserted as a routine starter on March 16 against Houston.
The Heat have been cautious in their approach with Oden every step of the way and were reluctant to set the level of expectation too high for him going into Wednesday’s game. But it’s clear that both Oden and his teammates see the matchup with Hibbert as an opportunity to gauge Oden’s growth.
Oden is coming off his longest stint of the season: He played 15 minutes in Monday’s 93-91 home win against Portland, the team that selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. Although Oden is soft-spoken and frequently downplays the significance of anything he does on the court, he’s been through a series of emotional reunions in recent days.
On Friday he played against Memphis and point guard Mike Conley Jr., who was Oden’s teammate at Ohio State and in various youth leagues from the time they were in the seventh grade. Conley’s father is also Oden’s agent and brokered the deal that led to the one-year contract with the Heat last summer.
On Saturday, Oden sat out of the Heat’s visit to New Orleans but he did see Pelicans coach Monty Williams, who was an assistant in Portland during Oden’s injury-plagued seasons with the Blazers. And then came Monday’s game against Portland, which still has three players on the roster who were alongside Oden when he suffered his season-ending knee injury on Dec. 5, 2009.
Now, Oden returns to his Indianapolis hometown as a starter amid his latest comeback.
Oden said Tuesday that he wouldn’t allow himself to even dream this time a year ago that he might get the opportunity to be in the position he’s in right now as the Heat (48-21) aim to overtake the Pacers (51-20) for the No. 1 seed in the East with three weeks left in the season.
“I just wanted to get on a team and I wanted to play,” said Oden, who has struggled with foul trouble in his limited stints but is averaging 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in nine minutes a game. “I tried not to think too far into it. But now that it’s happening, now that I’m starting, I’m happy. But we’ve got to come back [to Miami] with a win, and that’s all that matters.”
Oden insists he won’t overthink his matchup with Hibbert, who will also be defended by backup center Chris Andersen for longer stretches of the game. His instructions are simple.
“It’s positioning and just being big,” Oden said. “With a guy like [Hibbert], he can shoot over anybody. He’s 7-2. But to me, I’ve just got to not let him get right in front of the rim, make sure I get big and make sure he has somebody he has to look over when he goes up and shoots.”
Oden has played to mixed results so far this season. He’s shot 56.5 percent from the field in 21 games, but he continues to struggle with his timing and rhythm. He’s grabbed 48 total rebounds and blocked 11 shots, but he has committed 47 fouls and 11 turnovers.
It amounts to Oden still being the ultimate work in progress. But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has reached the stage where he realizes there can only be progress with consistent opportunities.
“I think he’s getting in better game shape [and] the only way for him to do that is to play those minutes,” Spoelstra said. “I think that’s the most active he’s been [as a starter]. I’m not pushing to increase that minute load. If it happens, it happens. He gives us something we don’t have.”
And that’s a change-up option to the Heat’s usual small-ball, perimeter-based attack.
And that’s also the type of presence in the paint capable of pounding with the big and bulky Pacers.
Hibbert is also intrigued by the possibility of working against Oden. After he scorched the Heat with 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field in the Pacers’ 90-84 win at home on Dec. 10, Hibbert essentially counted the months before there would be a chance to face Miami with Oden available.
“I’m going to just keep asserting myself whenever I play against them,” Hibbert said after that game. “But I’m really looking forward to matchup up against Greg when he does play. He’s such a big impact, a big impressive presence. When he gets healthy, we can battle a little bit.”
The big men have a bit of a history together.
Hibbert and Oden matched up twice in their careers. Their lone NBA showdown came during Hibbert’s rookie season and Oden’s first year of action after he sat out his rookie season following knee surgery. Hibbert had 14 points and two blocks in Indiana’s 95-85 loss on March 18, 2009 to Portland, which got four points and seven rebounds that night from Oden.
Their first encounter was a bit more memorable and came during the 2007 NCAA Final Four in Atlanta. Hibbert had a more productive night, with 19 points in 24 minutes for Georgetown. But Oden, who battled foul trouble much of the game, had the more successful result as Ohio State advanced to the championship game, where it lost to the Joakim Noah-led Florida Gators.
Oden, who is expected to continue to play limited minutes, is more focused on the scoreboard than the stat sheet when it comes to his performances against Hibbert.
“If I was brought here for that reason -- you know, if I have a terrible game and Hibbert has a good game and we win, that’s really all that matters,” Oden said. “It’s not about who has the better game. It’s about winning the game. I’m going to come and do my best. It’s going to be a battle with him, I just hope we can come out on top.”
A year ago, Oden was a spectator admiring the work of a fellow 7-foot, traditional center against Miami.
Now, he’s begins work as a potential solution to help contain the Heat’s longstanding Hibbert problem.