Nelson returns to mixed reviews
LOS ANGELES -- In the best-case scenario -- which was also the most unrealistic -- he would have come back firing, playing as if his 4½ months off was just 4½ minutes.
In the worst-case, he would have been horrible -- getting his pocket picked at half court, barely grazing the rim on jump shots and disrupting the chemistry of a team that had been flowing like a river for the past few weeks.
So which was it for Jameer Nelson, the Orlando Magic's All-Star point guard who made a stunning return from a separated right shoulder Thursday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals?
Well, he was neither terrific nor terrible, and with his teammates playing poorly, his performance was largely inconsequential in the Magic's embarrassing 100-75 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.
But with Orlando playing on its biggest stage since 1995, the answer to the chemistry question remains to be seen.
"It is a gamble,'' Magic forward Rashard Lewis said of bringing Nelson back. "And that's why he's not starting. I'm sure if he would've went out there and played terrible when he first got out there, Coach probably wouldn't have put him back in. But he's still a great point guard and you've got to pay attention to him. I thought he came out early and made some great passes and got us some easy baskets.''
Nelson didn't start, but he played nearly as much as starter Rafer Alston, finishing with six points and a team-high four assists in 23 minutes, 28 seconds of action.
Alston, a Magic hero at times during the Eastern Conference finals against Cleveland, struggled badly, playing one of his worst games of the postseason. He scored six points on 2-of-9 shooting and gave out just one assist in 24 minutes, 32 seconds. Backup Anthony Johnson was moved to third string and didn't play at all.
There's an old saying about NFL quarterbacks: "When you have two quarterbacks, you don't have any.'' That also applies to NBA point guards, and Thursday night, at least after the second quarter, the Magic appeared headless.
Alston started well, hitting his only two shots and handing out his lone assist in helping Orlando to a 24-22 first-quarter lead. But after going cold while Nelson played the entire second quarter, Alston never found his groove again.
"It's tough, it's tough,'' said Alston, who has averaged 33 minutes per game during the playoffs, of suddenly sharing minutes. "I felt great starting the game. The first quarter, I was in a rhythm, in a groove. I got a good feel for the game. Then I sat the whole second, then came in in the third and had to start all over and get a feel for the game, and I couldn't get that feel for the game again. So it's something I have to adjust to and adjust to quick.''
To be fair, Nelson looked great early in the second quarter. He got wherever he wanted to on the floor and ran the pick-and-roll to near perfection, giving out assists on his first two possessions. On the third, he sank a 9-foot jumper along the baseline to give the Magic their biggest lead of the game at 31-26. He had four points and four assists in the quarter.
For a moment, it seemed as if the best-case scenario might actually happen for Orlando.
"I thought he played well in the second quarter,'' coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I was happy. I thought he was getting in the paint on his pick-and-rolls. He was making really good plays.''
Despite Nelson's strong play, the Lakers closed the half with a 25-10 run to send the Magic into the locker room in a 10-point hole. Nelson returned with 4:08 left in the third and the Magic down 18 points, but his jump shots were short, he had a driving layup blocked by Pau Gasol, and Luke Walton stole the ball from him.
"In the second half, I didn't think he was very good at all,'' Van Gundy said of Nelson. "He made one good play and then I think he was forcing shots and plays after that.''
Nelson, who has had just two full days of practice, admitted being surprised by how many minutes he played. But he said fatigue was not a factor.
"I felt good,'' said Nelson, who made 3 of 9 shots. "My rhythm was a little off, but it was good to be back out there. I thought I did some good things, and I also thought I did some bad things. Like I always say, there's always room for improvement, and the next two days individually and as a team, we need to improve.''
They also need to adjust, especially Alston.
"It was a little different to play the entire first quarter, sit the entire second, then come out in the third and play a little bit,'' Alston said. "I haven't done that my entire career. It's different because you're in the Finals. It's not like it's game 41 or 42.''
Though Nelson was arguably better than Alston, he said he doesn't want to start any games this series. "I'm not coming back to start,'' he said. "I'm coming back just to relieve Ray when he needs a break. I think he's done a great job, and no matter what, he deserves to start.''
Alston said he would not make any suggestions to Van Gundy about the distribution of minutes, and Lewis said he wouldn't let playing time become an issue in the locker room.
"I don't think it's going to hurt their feelings at all,'' Lewis said of the Magic point guards. "This is the NBA Finals, and right now the only thing that everybody should be worried about is winning. At the end of the day, you should just want to win the game, regardless of if you play two minutes or you play 40 minutes, whether you get two shots or 20 shots.''
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.