PORTLAND, Ore. " Greg Oden is smiling again.
That's significant as the Trail Blazers prepare for their first foray into the playoffs since 2003.
Portland's big man has been moody at times his rookie season, weighed down by a couple of injuries and the mountainous " possibly unrealistic " expectations that have been placed on him.
But over the past couple of weeks, Oden has gained both confidence and a comfort level with his game. During Monday night's 113-83 victory over Oklahoma City, the 7-footer flashed his toothy grin and waved to fans behind the bench at the Rose Garden.
"I feel good, you know?" Oden said. "I think it was just a matter of being able to get out there and just play. Get some minutes and start playing."
Oden was the first pick in the 2007 draft, taken ahead of the Thunder's Kevin Durant. But he missed what would have been his rookie year because he needed microfracture surgery on his right knee.
Even though he wasn't on the court, Oden still had a high profile with the Blazers. He became known for his affable manner, a wardrobe at times flamboyant, and humorous blog posts.
After Durant was chosen the NBA's Rookie of the Year, fans were eager to see how Oden would compare this season. But the center injured his foot in the opener against the Los Angeles Lakers and missed six games.
Eventually Oden was elevated to a starting role " but it didn't suit him yet. His play was disjointed and inconsistent. The critics " even rapper Lil Wayne " proclaimed him a bust.
Then came a collision during a game at Golden State that caused a bone chip in his left knee. That kept him out of the All-Star weekend's rookie challenge and the next 15 games.
The various injuries drew comparisons to Sam Bowie, the center the Blazers selected over Michael Jordan in the 1984 draft who was plagued with injuries in his first years.
During the season Oden had shown flashes of his personality, such as when he was excited over turning 21 but disappointed he wasn't asked to show ID because "everybody thinks I'm 50."
For the most part, Oden kept his emotions under wraps. It appeared at times that the pressures were getting to him.
That has started to change the last couple of weeks. He no longer seems concerned about how his knee will respond. He's become more steady, even though he's still having foul trouble. And he's settled in with the second team while Joel Przybilla starts.
"I'm just trying to play my role. Definitely, we all need to accept our roles and know that that's what got us here," he said. "So I just want to go out there and play hard every night."
Over Portland's last 10 games, Oden is averaging 9.2 points and six rebounds. While not impressive statistically, his play is clearly improving.
"He's starting to get a feel and a rhythm and get comfortable with the team he's playing with. We're bringing him off the bench, and I think he's gotten comfortable with that rotation and has been able to be productive for us," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said.
Overall, Oden is averaging 8.8 points, seven rebounds and 1.13 blocks in 60 games this season.
One of the reasons that Oden's mood has brightened is the playoffs. The Blazers were still jockeying for home-court advantage as they prepared to host the Denver Nuggets in the finale Wednesday night.
"I'm excited," he said. "It's going to be fun."