Posted Apr 19 2010 7:51AM
ORLANDO (NBA.com exclusive) -- All right, so he came up small in the NBA Finals last summer, mainly due to rust and injuries, and he waited 10 long months for redemption before delivering in a huge way Sunday night. And what kind of nickname did Jameer Nelson earn for his post-season about-face?
"Our little crib midget," said Dwight Howard.
Little. Crib. Midget. That's a triple-negative, we think. But at least Howard, the jovial Magic center, was being affectionate. So Nelson can live with that. And he can definitely live without the memory of The Finals, which suddenly got fainter after the number he did on the Bobcats.
On a night when Howard collected silly fouls as easily as blocked shots, and Vince Carter was vapor, and the Magic couldn't keep a lead, Nelson was the difference. He scored 24 points in the first half, when Orlando seized Game 1 for good, including a 40-footer at the halftime buzzer, applying a sucker-punch to Charlotte from which they never really recovered. And he helped finish off the Bobs with 32 points total, looking nothing like the feeble point guard who had no business being on the floor against the Lakers last summer.
"I think it's just great to play in the playoffs," Nelson said.
Play well, he meant.
He lost four months last season after shoulder surgery. This time last spring, he was in a tailored suit, watching his teammates zip through the first round, then the second round as well, then hold their breath in a close Eastern Conference final against the Cavs. He never expected to play.
But Nelson felt the urge to play, and his body convinced him and the Magic that he was healthy enough. Coach Stan Van Gundy fell for the tease and took a gamble. Nelson was thrown into the Finals heat with a scant amount of practice and no post-season preparation. And what happened? Disaster happened. His timing was off, his feet sluggish. He averaged 3.8 points and 2.8 assists against the Lakers. He was slow rotating on defense and couldn't reach Derek Fisher, who sank a 3-pointer in the decisive game.
People in Orlando suddenly seemed to forget that, before hurting his shoulder, Nelson was an All-Star. They screamed for Rafer Alston who, after being traded in the off-season, had a meltdown in Miami last month. Yes, it had gotten that bad.
"I wasn't myself in the Finals," Nelson said, "but I'm not making any excuses. I was out there, so I should've helped my team out a little better."
Obviously, then, something simmered inside Nelson all season, until his chance for a release finally arrived. From the jump against Charlotte, he was bent on making a difference. He attacked the basket, dropped jumpers and made life miserable for Raymond Felton and whomever else Charlotte threw his way. Nobody expects Nelson to have another scoring game like that in this series, but that's beside the point. When the Magic needed him to score, and they did Sunday night because of Howard and Carter, he answered.
"It felt good seeing him out there," Howard said. "I'm happy he wasn't able to have any serious injuries this year. He was the old Jameer."
Nelson was involved in the game's biggest moment. On a loose-ball scramble, right before Nelson's buzzer-beating 3-pointer, Gerald Wallace crashed into Stephen Jackson's left knee, causing a hyperextension. Jackson limped off the floor, but then limped back on at the start of the second half. The question then is whether the Bobcats could've made an even bigger run had Jackson been healthy.
Rather than risk further injury to his leading scorer, coach Larry Brown decided to sit Jackson for good in the 4th quarter after watching one too many limps. It was the right thing to do. Jackson grit his teeth, not from the pain, but from the benching.
"I could've played," Jackson said. "I just blocked out the pain. I played the whole third quarter so I could've played the fourth. Coach was looking out for me, and I respect that. But I was fine."
And his thoughts about Game 2?
"I'm ready to play," he said, before adding with emphasis, "just like I was ready to play the entire second half."
Any chance the ankle and/or Brown could prevent that from happening?
"Not a chance in hell," Jackson said. "No way."
Jackson added, "we definitely feel we can beat those guys" and you could see how he felt that way. Howard was tricked into fouls and played only 27 minutes. Vince Carter shot 4-for-19 in his first playoff game with Orlando. And Orlando needed 13 3-pointers to finish off Charlotte, including some big ones in the 4th by Mickael Pietrus and J.J. Redick.
"They just made plays when we were rallying," Brown said.
Bottom line? Nelson made plays. Orlando needed him last night just like they missed him last summer. The Little Crib Midget came up tall, and if nothing else, you've surely noticed how much Nelson has grown from the experience.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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