Denton: Nelson's Defense Key to Magic's Success
ORLANDO – Jameer Nelson was arguably the Orlando Magic’s best player in the postseason last spring, torching Charlotte and Atlanta in the first two rounds and fighting to keep the Magic’s heartbeat alive against Boston after falling down 0-3.
But the memory that stuck with Nelson all offseason was one of a blur. A blur as in streaky Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who keyed Boston’s fast start in the series by regularly getting into the lane and collapsing the Orlando defense with his dribble penetration.
The visions of Rondo getting into the lane were burned into Nelson’s psyche and drove him to work harder than ever this past summer on his lateral quickness and stamina. He reported to training camp at 190 pounds, down almost eight pounds from the weight that he played at last season. The goal was simple: Be quick enough to keep blindingly quick opposing point guards in front of him.
``I’ve gotten better with it and I’ve focused more on it – even in practice because that’s where it starts,’’ Nelson said. ``If you are late in practice you are going to be late in games. One thing we’re really focusing on this year is practicing good habits and then taking them to the game.
``I’m a little bit slimmer, but I think everybody came in a little slimmer and focused on defense,’’ Nelson continued. One big thing too is that I’m healthy and I haven’t been healthy up until the end of last season, so that makes a big difference.’’
Nelson’s newfound quickness will get a big test right away Thursday night when the Magic open the regular season and the new dazzling Amway Center against the Washington Wizards and electrifying rookie John Wall. The dynamic point guard was the first overall choice in last June’s NBA Draft because of his lightning-quick speed and his ability to break down defenses and create for others.
Nelson, who is among the Magic’s savviest defenders, knows he’ll have his work cut out against the speedy Wall. But he is wise enough to know how to turn the rookie into his help defense, primarily shot-block king Dwight Howard.
``I’ve seen some film on (Wall) and seen him play and he’s really fast,’’ the Magic co-captain said. ``He’s faster than a blur. I’ll just rely on my help defense a little bit, but not too much because I want to keep him in front of me as much as I can so he can’t find open people. But I know that I have help back there and it’s not just on me to stop him.’’
When Nelson and Magic coach Stan Van Gundy met following the crushing Eastern Conference Finals loss to Boston last spring, they talked about where Nelson could improve his game the most. Van Gundy asked that he push himself to become a better defender. To do just that, Nelson went through hours of agility drills to better his side-to-side movement and footwork and he trained again with boxing drills to make his hands and reactions better.
And Van Gundy said he’s seen positive results in the preseason. He hopes that it carries over to Thursday when Nelson will be matched up with Wall, Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich at times throughout the game.
``It’s going to be really tough for Jameer because Wall is really tough and really explosive. And he’s big and strong too, so it’s not going to be easy,’’ Van Gundy said. ``Jameer’s been working hard it so far, and this will be a good test for him.’’
Nelson’s offensive numbers in the preseason – 7.9 points a game on 44 percent shooting and 30 percent accuracy from 3-point range – were pedestrian compared to the electrifying impact he had last spring in the playoffs. Nelson was never better than he was against Charlotte’s Raymond Felton, Atlanta’s Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford and even Boston’s Rondo, averaging 19 points and 4.8 assists. Many experts measure true overall greatness by a players ability to shoot 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from 3-point range and 80 percent from the free throw line, and Nelson nearly hit all of those numbers at 47.9 percent overall shooting, 39.3 percent from 3-point range and 82.3 percent from the foul line.
Besides working on his defense, Nelson also used the preseason to excel as a playmaker. With the Magic having the deepest roster in the NBA, Nelson has always had to walk the fine line of getting his teammates involved and staying aggressive himself. In seven preseason games, Nelson had a dazzling 5 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio with 41 assists compared to just five turnovers.
``Even though you are called upon to make a lot of plays, if you have a lot of turnovers you aren’t doing your job. There might be a play where if you just make the right play instead of trying to thread the needle then you might get the hockey assist,’’ Nelson said. ``In the preseason, I stayed aggressive. I wasn’t necessarily shooting the ball that much, but because I was in the paint as often as I was, pushing the ball and attacking, other guys were getting open shots,’’ Nelson said. ``It’s not about me scoring. I just want to be aggressive for my team because we’re at our best when I’m aggressive.’’
As for the bitter memory of last season, Nelson said he still isn’t over losing to Boston in the playoffs. But starting the season and playing games will help. He said the pain from last spring has driven the Magic throughout the summer and in preseason, and it should persist until Orlando is back in the playoffs again.
``We have to put last year behind us. But we have to use it for fuel to our fire,’’ he said. ``We did some things that were great last year, but we also did some things that will be lessons. We didn’t get it done against Boston and couldn’t play in the Finals. It starts now. You can’t say we’re going to make it to the playoffs or to The Finals; you’ve got to put in the work now.’’