|Jameer Nelson is healthy again and leading Orlando in postseason scoring. (Reinhold Matay/File/Ap)|
Full Nelson this time
No holding back star Magic guard
ORLANDO, Fla. — The back seat is no place for an NBA point guard who is accustomed to being behind the wheel.
But that’s where Jameer Nelson found himself last season during the Orlando Magic’s run to the NBA Finals, after tearing a labrum in his right shoulder during a loss to the Mavericks Feb. 2, just seven days before his 27th birthday.
The injury truncated what had been an All-Star season for Nelson, who was averaging 17 points and 5.4 assists per game. Nelson’s injury sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season after just 42 games. It also relegated him to a forlorn corner of the Orlando bench for much of the postseason.
So now that he’s back in the mix, leading the Magic with a 20.8-point playoff scoring average entering last night’s game, Nelson says he’s glad to be at the controls.
“I’m just seizing the opportunity of the moment right now,’’ Nelson said before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics. “You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I just kind of take what happened last year as one of those things, a freak accident.’’
Nelson injured his shoulder as he attempted to make a steal on Dallas center Erick Dampier. Nelson was fouled and hit the floor, tearing his labrum as he attempted to rip the ball away. He came up bent over, in pain, clutching his shoulder as he headed off the floor toward the locker room.
Up to that point, “I had been playing some of the best basketball of my NBA career,’’ said the former Saint Joseph’s standout, who was selected in the first round of the 2004 draft by the Nuggets (20th overall), before being traded to the Magic for a first-round pick.
“All of a sudden — boom — I’m out of it,’’ said Nelson, who not only overcame that injury but also a torn meniscus in his left knee that sidelined him for 16 games (Nov. 18-Dec. 19) at the start of this season. He also sat out a game March 2 against the Bucks with a hyperextended left knee.
“You’re not necessarily taking anything for granted, but you always think that when you’re on the court, you’re going to play,’’ Nelson said. “So I just want to seize the opportunity and the moment.’’
That he has done in these playoffs.
In the first round, Nelson led the Magic to a four-game sweep of the Bobcats, averaging a team-high 23.8 points, 4.5 assists, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.5 steals. He set the tone from Game 1, scoring a playoff career-high 32 points on 10-for-18 shooting (4 of 8 from the 3-point arc), and then matched the feat with 32 points in Game 3 on 12-for-21 shooting (5 of 9 from the arc).
“Jameer’s huge, you know, he’s huge,’’ said teammate Matt Barnes. “I think he’s making up for last year. He really didn’t get a chance to [play], with the Magic going through all their success last year, he had to watch it.
“So, he’s been on a mission in these playoffs. He carried us through the first round, still played great in the last series, and then he really took over in that fourth quarter and headed that charge back [in Game 1’s 92-88 loss to the Celtics].
“He’s our floor general.’’
And, as such, Nelson has shown no shyness about expressing his leadership.
“He’s not afraid to stick his nose in our huddle and reprimand anyone,’’ said Vince Carter. “I think that’s the wonderful thing about our team is that we’re able to do that to each other and it’s OK. It’s not like guys hang their heads or get into a little argument. He does it verbally and he leads by example sometimes. He came out in the third quarter [in Game 1] leading by example.’’
After the Magic missed their first nine shots from beyond the arc, Nelson came out in the second half and knocked down the team’s first trey after just 25 seconds. He wound up tallying 20 points, converting 8 of 18 shots (2 of 7 treys), and even helped rally the Magic from a 20-point deficit (65-45) to get within 90-88 when he sneaked up from behind the Celtics’ much taller rebounders and tipped in a missed foul shot by Carter with 8.4 seconds left.
“The funny thing is, I wasn’t even supposed to go in,’’ Nelson said. “It wasn’t my play to go in. At that time, with the time left and the score, you figure you go in and you get the rebound and you try to put it back in. If they get the rebound, you’re going to go in and end up fouling, anyway. So you as might as well go get in there.’’
It was a graphic reminder that Nelson was not about to take a back seat to Boston’s Rajon Rondo in this tantalizing matchup of point guards.
“It’s not a one-on-one thing,’’ Nelson insisted. “I mean, we’re both pretty established in the league as two pretty good point guards. I rely on help. I play him as tough as I can, but I’m looking for guys to help me out, and vice versa.
“When other guys are playing against Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen], I’m trying to help them out, as well. So it’s a team thing.’’
But Nelson’s teammates know he is relishing the opportunity to play against Rondo.
“I’m sure of it, because right now Rondo is playing off the charts,’’ Carter said. “For anyone who’s playing a guy who’s playing that well and who’s being considered as one of the best right now, this is his opportunity to show that he’s pretty darn good himself.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.