ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Orlando Magic are back in this series, like someone smart knew they would be. But to stay in this series they need to do something so simple, any idiot -- even the idiots who said this series was over after two games -- ought to be able to figure out:
|The Lakers can guard Jameer Nelson with their hands behind their backs. (Getty Images)|
Jameer Nelson, who had been out for four months and missed the Magic's first three playoff series with a shoulder injury -- but returned for the NBA Finals -- needs to be finished for the 2009 NBA Finals. He tried to come back, and he made it. He won, but his team lost. Twice. Nothing personal. It didn't work out.
But it cannot happen again.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy cannot let Nelson dress out Thursday night for Game 4, and if there's even a chance of that happening, Nelson cannot be allowed to arrive at Amway Arena. Someone on the team could poke holes in his tires. The Orlando police could put up a roadblock outside his house. Charles Barkley could throw Nelson through a plate-glass window. Anything. But he cannot be allowed onto the court, or even into uniform, for Game 4.
You saw Game 3, right? Orlando won 108-104 Tuesday night by controlling the perimeter. With the exception of the last 5½ minutes of the first quarter, when the Lakers' Kobe Bryant went off in a way that very few players in the history of this game could have gone off, Orlando's backcourt got the better of the Lakers' backcourt.
Bryant scored 17 points in those 5½ minutes, but otherwise he was outplayed by Rafer Alston of all people. Alston, who was so bad in Game 1 and then even worse in Game 2, had his best game since Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, when he lit up Cleveland for 26 points. Tuesday night against the Lakers, Alston scored 20 and needed just 12 shots to do it, leading an offense that shot an NBA Finals-record 62.5 percent from the floor.
"Rafer got off to a very good start and played very, very well -- played with great confidence," Van Gundy said.
Alston played 36 minutes and 44 seconds, which meant Van Gundy had 11:16 to fill at guard. And so he filled that 11:16 with Jameer Nelson, which was like spackling a hole in your wall with a dead squirrel.
Nelson was so annoying that even his teammates were frustrated. After going 4-for-12 in the first two games of this series, Nelson clearly came into Tuesday deciding he would rather not shoot, and in those 11:16 he took just one shot. But Nelson had three turnovers, two in identical fashion -- he drove, rose for a shot, then threw it away. Twice.
After the second such turnover, Magic center Dwight Howard could be seen on the bench making a shooting motion with his hands and lamenting that "he won't shoot."
After the game, someone had to be the bad guy and ask Nelson if he should just shut it down for the season. Since no one volunteered, what the hell. I did it.
Me: "Jameer, why don't you just shut it down for the rest of the season?"
Me: "For the good of the team."
Nelson: "You saw tonight. I played, and we won the game. I didn't stop us from winning."
Me: "But has it occurred to you that, as admirable as your comeback is, maybe it's best for the team if you don't play anymore?"
Nelson: "That's up to the coaches. I don't beg for minutes, and I don't ask not to play. If they don't play me, I'm not going to be mad. But if they want to play me, I want to play."
Too bad. It's apparent that Nelson is not the same player he was in January, when he averaged nearly 20 points and seven assists per game. He was All-Star good, and he made the All-Star team. But then he got hurt, had surgery and was said to be done for the season. But Orlando kept winning in the playoffs, and Nelson kept rehabbing, and soon enough it was the NBA Finals and ... what do you know? Nelson was ready.
So Van Gundy did what you're not supposed to do. He went against the advice of Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner in the movie Bull Durham. He [messed] with a streak. The Magic got to the NBA Finals without Nelson, but Van Gundy got Van Greedy and added Nelson to the roster of the team that had eliminated Philadelphia, defending NBA champion Boston and 2008-09 regular-season champion Cleveland.
Bad move. Luckily for Van Gundy, it's not irreversible. By winning Game 3, the Magic are right back in this series. Alston, who had complained that splitting minutes with Nelson in Game 1 took him out of his rhythm -- and then had it happen again in Game 2 -- was sensational in Game 3.
Alston might not play that well again, and he definitely can't play all game, so there are minutes to be given to someone else. Those minutes cannot be given to Nelson. His very presence freaked out Alston before, and could again, and there are other options at guard. Mickael Pietrus was monstrous Tuesday night. Courtney Lee, who plays too much for my liking, is still available. And Anthony Johnson, who is a big-game reserve -- think Lindsey Hunter for those great Detroit teams, only better offensively -- hasn't played yet this series because of Nelson's arrival.
So Nelson needs to depart. Go away. Sit with Tiger Woods on the front row. Watch Game 4 on television. I don't care where he goes -- just don't come back to the Magic lineup.
And if Nelson won't do it, Van Gundy needs to do it for him.