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Rob Peterson

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Chance at a ring worth all the risk for Nelson, Magic

By Rob Peterson,
Posted Jun 4 2009 2:32PM

Most players would give an arm and a leg just to go to The Finals. Magic point guard Jameer Nelson is getting a discount. He's only putting up his right shoulder to play in one.

Nelson had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shooting shoulder in February and was scheduled to be out four to six months. But he has progressed with his rehabilitation so quickly that he may return to the Magic to play in The Finals. By doing so, Nelson and the Magic could be risking the All-Star point guard's long-term health.

Good for them.

There is no better time to be bold than The Finals. The meek may inherit the earth, but rarely do they win championships.

Nelson, like most NBA players, loves to play. All these guys live to play. And they all want one thing: a ring. The ring's allure is undeniable. The pursuit of it makes players do crazy things. Superstars leave the court in a snit when they are denied a chance to play for one. It's why over-the-hill veterans hang on way past their prime.

So, if the Magic's team doctors give the OK and general manager Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy sign off on it, Nelson should absolutely, positively play despite the risks. Who knows if he will ever get another shot at holding the Larry O'Brien trophy?

That is what makes the risk worth it. There's a list of Hall of Famers with unadorned digits -- John Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Bob Lanier to name a few -- who probably wouldn't mind being in the position Nelson is in right now.

It's not as if Nelson is coming out of nowhere to rejoin his team. He has traveled on nearly every Magic road trip since his surgery. His teammate, Tony Battie, who missed all of 2007-08 after rotator cuff surgery, said it's like a sick kid who's watching his friends play outside. Nelson's been an invigorating and stabilizing presence in the Magic locker room, keeping things loose but providing leadership when necessary.

Nelson, clearly, has been itching to play ever since he had his surgery. In New York in March, one month after he had surgery, he snuck out onto the court to chuck underhanded shots with his left hand before a member of the Magic training staff gave him the evil eye. Nelson slunk back to his courtside seat.

His progress has been stark. After one Magic practice in Boston, while the media continued to speculate as to whether Kevin Garnett was going to pull off a Willis Reed moment, Nelson was working up a sweat, going through drills and hoisting shots with his injured shoulder.

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"Maybe we should start a story that Jameer's coming back," one member of the Orlando media joked.

Nelson fueled that fire himself before Game 1 of the East Finals when he told NBA TV that there may be a possibility of a return if the Magic made it to the Finals. The next day Smith said "no way." He, too has changed his tune.

Nelson returning to the court is alluring. Why wouldn't the Magic want to get an All-Star point guard back, even if it is for 15 minutes per game with the second unit? But there are risks. What about team chemistry?

"I don't think I'll go out there and mess things up," Nelson told the Orlando Sentinel. "Coach has put me in a position to make me successful."

Of course, there's the risk he could re-injure the shoulder and cause more damage. Nelson is not one to shy away from the NBA's physical nature. Built more like a linebacker than someone who plays in the backcourt, Nelson fights through screens, dives for loose balls and has no fear when he goes to the rack. The risk is there.

But that's something else that NBA players live with all the time. Just ask Andrew Bynum, who has shredded a knee each of the past two seasons. Or Garnett.

Nelson realizes the risk. So do his teammates. But they also think that Nelson can help bring a title to Central Florida.

"I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think Coach will use him," Rashard Lewis told the Orlando Sentinel. "I don't know for how long he can play, but he can help us win."

That's what it's all about, right? And even if Nelson manages to stay healthy and the Magic don't win, he can sleep well knowing that he did all he could.

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