Denton: Nelson Returns to Form
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – In terms of sheer calendar days, the past offseason was the shortest in the Orlando Magic’s 20-year history. But for point guard Jameer Nelson, the player with the most to prove this season, it might have been the longest offseason ever.
Nelson attempted to do the unthinkable back in the spring, returning after missing four months of court time because of a torn labrum in his shoulder. That experiment didn’t work so well for the Magic in The NBA Finals, where they lost in five games to the Los Angeles Lakers. And Nelson, the all-star who was in the midst of his finest NBA season before the injury, was a shadow of his former self in the franchise’s biggest games.
So Nelson hit training camp and the preseason with questions surrounding his well-being and his ability to return to all-star form. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had plenty of peering eyes trained on his every move.
Could he return to being that all-star player and cold-blooded killer in the clutch for the Magic? Could he still play point guard like a thick-legged fullback, running through screens and attacking the rim with reckless abandon? Would there be a lingering effect from both the injury and the decision to return ahead of schedule?
Nelson usually isn’t one to put too much stock into what others have to say about him, but he knew he needed a defining moment early in the season to quell those questions. If for no other reason than his own peace of mind, Nelson hoped for one of those take-charge moments where he could show his teammates and organization that he was back.
That moment came on Sunday in Orlando’s 125-116 victory, a game that Nelson figuratively grabbed by the neck and stamped his imprint upon. Nelson torched Toronto for 30 points, five 3-pointers and one will-crushing moment after another in Sunday’s second half.
"That is probably the best game I’ve had since the surgery," said Nelson, whose Magic (3-0) face the Detroit Pistons (1-2) tonight at The Palace. "It was just me being aggressive, being who I am and playing the way I know how to play."
There was some mild concern about Nelson’s ability to do that again after a Finals in which he shot just 35 percent from the floor and played hesitantly. And Magic coach Stan Van Gundy chided him early in the preseason for playing too unselfishly in an attempt to get the ball in the hands of all of Orlando’s scoring weapons. Point blank, Van Gundy told his point guard that the offense only functions at its peak when Nelson is in all-out attack mode.
``I think he’s the same player now that he was before the injury,’’ Van Gundy said last week. ``He got the rust off and he’s attacking the same way he did before (the injury). That’s good to see again.’’
New Philadelphia coach Eddie Jordan saw plenty from Nelson this summer when he attended some of the informal workouts that Orlando’s co-captain organized in his native Philadelphia. It’s the third straight year that Nelson has gotten the Magic together for an August mini-camp that promotes team bonding.
Jordan, who had only seen Nelson work from afar in years past as Washington’s head coach, was blown away by Nelson’s skills as a leader. He said that while Dwight Howard, Rashard Lewis and Vince Carter are legitimate superstars, Nelson is the glue that helps the Magic be one of the NBA’s elite teams.
``I really think that Jameer’s intangibles are worth more to the Magic than his actual stats,’’ Jordan said. ``He’s just a true leader who gets that team in the right frame of mind all the time.’’
When Nelson shredded his shoulder last February on a collision with Dallas center Erick Dampier, it knocked him out of the All-Star Game and sent the Magic into a mini-tailspin as they searched feverishly for another point guard.
Yet, Nelson was a pillar in the face of the adversity. He had seemingly lost so much, but simply shrugged his one good shoulder and refused to curse his own fate.
His answer was direct and to the point. ``I’ve been through much worse than this,’’ Nelson said.
He was referring, of course, to having to deal with the mysterious drowning death of his father Floyd ``Pete’’ Nelson two summers ago in the Delaware River. Nelson never got much closure as to what happened to his 57-year-old painter and dock worker, who had shaped so much of his persona as a tough-minded kid who battled to make it to the NBA.
Nelson recently told NBA.com’s David Aldridge that he sought the help of a psychologist last season, something that helped him deal with the grief of losing his dad and have his finest NBA season. He still meets with the psychologist referred to him by Magic general manager Otis Smith on a weekly basis.
Known as one of the Magic’s toughest players, Nelson returned a month ahead of schedule last June and moved back into Orlando’s rotation during the Finals. When he didn’t play particularly well – the failure to close out on Derek Fisher’s game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation in Game 4 still haunts him – there were whispers that Nelson sabotaged Orlando’s chances in the Finals.
``You hear that all the time; people are always gonna say (he cost the Magic in the Finals),’’ Nelson said. ``They may say it now after a loss in the regular season -- it’s Jameer’s fault. But if we win, you look like a genius. It goes either way. The people who matter to me are the people inside this organization, and if I wasn’t supposed to play, they wouldn’t have let me play.’’
Nelson admits now that he was far from a 100 percent for the Finals, something that still haunts him today. When he pops in the tapes of those games against the Lakers or looks at the photos of he and Dwight Howard commiserating on the bench as the Lakers celebrated, Nelson is reminded of how limited he was as a player in those games.
``I wasn’t myself,’’ he said candidly. ``I’m not making excuses or anything; if I had to go back and do it again, I would have played. I knew what I could give the team. I don’t think I went out there and I played poorly, but I just wasn’t myself.’’
Van Gundy said that it’s foolish to blame the loss to the Lakers solely on Nelson. ``Blaming him would be ridiculous,’’ he said. ``If you want to blame the move, I guess that’s fine. Your thinking there would have to be that Anthony Johnson would have made the difference in us winning the championship, and that’s certainly up to anybody to have that opinion. But to blame Jameer would be beyond ridiculous. The guy was willing to come back off of a major injury.
``I second guess everything that I’ve done,’’ Van Gundy continued. ``Let’s put it this way -- I probably would have second-guessed myself more had I not played him and we had lost. Then, I would have been wondering if I should have played a guy who was an All-Star and who was physically able to come back.’’
To a man, Orlando’s players defended their captain. He is easily the most respected player in the Magic’s locker room and the one player Van Gundy leans on most to get a feel for the pulse of the team.
And that pulse is beating strongly these days what with the Magic undefeated and Nelson attacking foes with his take-no-prisoners style of play. Sure, he scored 30 points in Sunday’s win – two off his career-high set last season in Golden State – but he’s most proud of how his Magic squad has fought through the adversity of Carter’s ankle injury, Lewis’ suspension and Mickael Pietrus’ illness.
``I feel better about the (Sunday’s) win, especially with the guys down,’’ Nelson said. ``We faced some adversity and I think we handled it well. Everybody has been talking about it all preseason that we have so many weapons and any given night is going to be someone’s night.’’
Sunday was Nelson’s night. And considering how he’s started the season, there will be plenty more nights like that to come in the months ahead.