For Victor Oladipo, the difference was night and day.
The Heat guard made his season debut Monday night in Miami almost 11 months after he last stepped foot on an NBA court. Oladipo battled through a second quadriceps injury that limited him over the past three NBA seasons. But when he got back onto the floor after an extensive rehab process, he could feel the difference in his body.
“I’m still getting stronger. Still getting better,” he said following Monday’s 123-106 win over the Houston Rockets. “That was a great first go-round, getting my feet wet. But I’m excited and looking forward to the year. Just gotta keep getting better. It’s not always going to be perfect, but that’s OK.
“My mentality will always be the same. I’ve been resilient since I could breathe. I’m not gonna stop now.”
Oladipo finished with 11 points and four assists against the Rockets. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the team named him its player of the game in the locker room and the night itself was a celebration of the long road back that Oladipo had to fight through.
“Only athletes really understand what that grind is like when you get injured and you have to deal with all that frustration and dead time behind the scenes,” Spoelstra said. “But he handled it with great positivity. Physically, he’s in a so much better place than where he was last year. I think looking back at on it, you really marvel that he was able to do what he was able to do basically on one leg for the two previous seasons. That was very uplifting for everybody.”
Oladipo started his postgame news conference by thanking his teammates, the coaching staff, the athletic training staff and his personal training staff as well as his family for helping him get back on the court.
“It takes a village,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who are working behind the scenes who y’all don’t see to help me play at the highest level. Those are the real MVPs.”
Oladipo checked in with 1:55 left in the first quarter to a rousing ovation from the FTX Arena crowd. And it didn’t take long for him to make an impact on the defensive end. On his first defensive possession, Oladipo stood in front of Houston rookie Alperen Sengun and drew a charge, much to the delight of his teammates and fans alike.
Spoelstra said he thinks Oladipo’s impact on the defensive end will come quicker than anything else.
“The offense and the rhythm and everybody getting on the same page, that’ll take a little bit of time. I fully recognize that,” Spoelstra said. “But defensively, he’s healthy. So he’s going to be a lot closer to what he was four years defensively right away just because he has two healthy legs.”
It took a while for Oladipo to get going, but his first field goal came with 7:31 left in the second quarter when Kyle Lowry swung a pass to the corner to Oladipo, who drained a 3-pointer. When Oladipo checked back into the game in the third quarter, he also started by making plays right away. He drove baseline and dished a pass to Dewayne Dedmon for a dunk and followed that up by drawing another charge on the defensive end. After he hit a scoop layup with 1:00 left in the quarter, the Heat crowd broke out into a “O-LA-DI-PO” chant.
“It was a great feeling. Unbelievable. Words can’t really describe it,” Oladipo said of hearing the chants. “I appreciate them for doing that. It made that moment even more special. Unfortunately last year ended the way it did. But they truly are better days ahead. I’m optimistic and looking forward to it.”
Perhaps the best example of Oladipo looking like himself came in the fourth quarter. With 10:14 left, he took the ball on the right wing and received a pick. He turned the corner on Rockets forward Jae’Sean Tate and threw down a dunk with his right hand.
Oladipo was 4-of-7 shooting while going 2-of-3 from 3-point range. He played exactly 15 minutes — the total Spoelstra had in mind for him pregame. It’s still unknown how long Oladipo will be under a minutes restriction, but he said it’s something that will be continuously worked on with the staff.
“I think it’s a process,” Oladipo said. “At the end of the day, dealing with this injury and dealing with what I’ve been through, there is no clear-cut answer. At the end of the day, it’s just about my body and how it responds over time.
“I think Spo and the staff understand that. It’s not something that’ll happen overnight. It’s something that’ll take some time. You gotta be patient, including myself … but eventually they’ll let the reins off. I just have to keep better until then.”
It was Oladipo’s first game since April 8, 2021. He was recovering from a second surgery that he needed on his right quadriceps tendon, which he originally injured playing for Indiana on Jan. 23, 2019. The injury ended his 2018-19 season and since then, Oladipo has played in just 52 regular-season games. He played in nine last season with Indiana, 20 with Houston and finally four with Miami after a pair of in-season trades. Miami acquired Oladipo last season for Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and 2022 first-round draft pick swap rights.
P.J. Tucker was Oladipo’s teammate in Houston last season and has had a first-hand look at his fight to get back to healthy and on the court.
“He’s been hurt for a couple years now,” Tucker said. “I’ve seen him struggling and going through it. Like, still trying to fight it and play and for it not to be right. So to finally be here and to make sure… in your head, you’re like, ‘Am I good?’ and you could see him going through that in every progression and every step to get to this point.
“It’s a beautiful thing to see him back out there.”