Freeman: Kobe has determined look
LOS ANGELES -- Rafer Alston strolled down the hall on his way out of Staples Center, looking snazzy in a white suit but carrying doubts with him that would linger into the night.
Jameer Nelson was still in the locker room icing his right shoulder, which made it through his first basketball game in four months.
All most certainly was not well in the brave new world of Orlando's two-headed point guard. To put it kindly, it was a disaster.
The reasoning behind it had sounded so sage during Stan Van Gundy's pregame news conference. Nelson had proven in two decent days of practice he was physically ready, and Van Gundy knew the All-Star would get better as the series goes on.
The coach better hope so. He better hope the series goes on long enough for that to happen.
Van Gundy was right when he said the easy decision, the one that wouldn't get second-guessed, would've been to keep Nelson right where he had been throughout Orlando's remarkable postseason run: on the bench in a suit. So I don't fault Van Gundy for trying something. But it's difficult to argue with the results, a 100-75 embarrassment in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers.
"We've never had a shooting night this bad," Dwight Howard would say on the interview stage, where ample time could've been allotted for each of his six field-goal attempts. "We've just got to come out and play a lot harder than we did tonight."
• Game 1: Lakers 100, Magic 75
The hottest offensive team in this postseason shot 30 percent from the field Thursday night and produced a postseason-low 75 points. This from a team that averaged 103.7 points in the conference finals against Cleveland and failed to hit 90 only three times in its 19 previous playoff games.
Can it all be pinned on the Nelson-Alston experiment? Did the wheels come off because Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith tried to get too cute at the worst possible time? No, it was more than that. The Lakers proved that the ruthless offensive play that began with Game 5 of the Denver series was only the beginning, as Kobe Bryant made more shots from the field (16) than Orlando's starting five (11). Defensively, the Lakers confused Howard by varying the timing and personnel on double teams, turning Howard into a timid shell of himself.
|Jameer Nelson scores six points and adds four assists in 23 minutes. (Getty Images)|
"I wasn't going out there to try to be a hero or try to be a savior," said Nelson, who logged 23 minutes and shot 3-for-9 from the field with six points and four assists. "I'm just going out there to try to play my game. My teammates have been around me for a few years now. They know the style I play."
But playing four months with a new point guard and trying to work the old one back in for the Finals is looking like an all-or-nothing venture for Van Gundy. Maybe he's right and Nelson will get better as the series goes on. But maybe this was the "master of panic" moment Shaquille O'Neal was talking about.
Nelson's teammates love and respect him, and Nelson said he spoke with Alston and Johnson and basically asked their permission to suit up. "They said they're all for it," Nelson said. "They're true professionals."
But what message was Van Gundy sending to his team by deciding after two days of practice it was time to bring Nelson back from a four-month absence? You guessed it: That we're not good enough to beat the Lakers without him.
All the talk from the Magic about how their effort was the problem might've been masking their real feelings. How could the effort not be there in the Finals?
• Series: Lakers 1, Magic 0
Van Gundy downplayed Nelson's dominance in the two regular-season victories against the Lakers, in which he totaled 55 points and was the deciding factor in both games. "Not enough of a sample to really draw any conclusions from," Van Gundy said. That's true. But the sample of 19 games with Alston as the unmitigated leader of the offense, on the other hand, was big enough by a mile.
"He's the ultimate professional," Nelson said. "The last few months I've learned a lot from Rafer. Never been around the guy, but he's been a great inspiration to me because you look at a guy who's coming from a different atmosphere, a different team. He handled every situation he came across well."
This one, too. But that doesn't mean he has to like it.
Before the game, Alston said he was on board with the decision to bring Nelson back, and that he has been around long enough so that it wouldn't affect him. He even went so far as to say that, as the series evolved, he would be OK with Nelson starting over him if that's what Van Gundy wanted.
"The good thing with me is, I've been a sub, I've been a starter, I've been on both sides of the coin," Alston said. "If he came back and they said they wanted to start him, I still know how to come off the bench and be productive and effective. If they want him to come off the bench with me starting, well, I've been starting since the trade, so I know how to flow with that decision. Again, we just want him to be himself and him be aggressive and understand that this is his team. He was directing and leading this team before he got hurt and we want him to do the same once he comes back."
Somehow, Alston still felt that way after a 25-point loss in which he was 2-for-9 with six points and one assist -- with a little doubt mixed in. How he arrived at those results clearly bothered him.
"It was a little different to play the whole first, sit the entire second, come out in the third, play a little bit, come on out, go back in," Alston said. "I haven't done that my entire career. It's something to adjust to. It's not like it's Game 41. It's the Finals, and you have to do it quick."
Adjusting. In the Finals. A team that had recently averaged nearly 104 points in the conference finals against one of the top three defensive teams in the league.
"It's only the first game," Alston said. "I liked the combination of us. The flow and tempo is going to continue to be up and down the court. You've got a guy in Jameer who can score. You've got a guy in myself who can make plays for others and occasionally hit the 3. It's an adjustment time."
Even Nelson, who should be applauded for the effort he put in to make it back, said the whole journey has been "a little weird."
What's even more bizarre is the Eastern Conference champs suddenly will be spending Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles trying to figure out who they are.
And who their leader is.