Imagine if Kobe Bryant, out for four months after an injury and surgery, tried to return for the NBA Finals and Phil Jackson said he was just going to play him 15 minutes off the bench each game. Everyone would have laughed. There would be no containing Kobe like that — he is out or he is all the way in. He is the team leader.
That’s exactly what the Magic tried to do with All Star point guard Jameer Nelson.
If you watched the Orlando Magic before February 3 — an I can’t blame you if you didn’t, not a lot of people wanted to — you would know this is not Dwight Howard’s team, it is Nelson’s. He was the leader in the locker room, the fiery competitor, the guy that made the offense go. The guy who took over late twice against the Lakers and beat them in the regular season. He was their Kobe.
And just like it is laughable to think of a part-time, off the bench Kobe, so it is with Nelson.
The Magic's problems are twofold now. One, Nelson is rusty and not in NBA game condition yet. Can’t blame him, four months off will do that to anyone. But after a good first five minutes in game one, he hurt the Magic at both ends of the floor. Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said he thought Nelson played a good second quarter, he must have napped through part of it. Derek Fisher was getting good looks on him. Nelson was forcing passes and missing open shots. Nelson shot 3 of 9 on the night, missed both his three pointers and was -19 for the game.
In addition, often-temperamental starting point guard Rafer Alston saw his minutes cut, and played like a guy looking over his shoulder much of the night. His game took a step back in game one from the Cleveland series.
And all this leaves Stan Van Gundy in a no-win situation. He could say Nelson is not really ready yet and bench him, but it’s a little hard to put that genie back in the bottle. Van Gundy would get shredded for putting the team leader on the bench, banged up or not.
Or, he can keep playing Nelson more and more minutes, hope Nelson stops hurting the team and hopes Alston stops pouting. All of which would need to happen very fast before the Lakers take this series completely by the throat.
The ceiling for the Magic is much higher with a healthy Nelson, and Van Gundy may have to hope for that. But if Nelson’s legs are to tired to jump, they will never reach that ceiling.
Kurt Helin lives his life in a Catch-22 and also blogs about the Lakers and NBA at Forum Blue & Gold.