Source: Gary Green, Orlando Sentinel, 2/28/2011
With this year's complete evolution of the Eastern Conference, the Magic's road through the playoffs to the NBA Finals promised land has become vastly more difficult.
In 2009, to ultimately get to the NBA Finals, the Magic knew they had to contend against a Philadelphia team that eeked into the playoffs, an "aging" Boston Celtics squad, and a one-man team in Cleveland. As we all know, Dwight and Co. took care of every challenge before eventually falling to the Lakers.
This year, the East is in fact the Beast again. Instead of 'how the West was won,' it has essentially become 'how the West was done.' The tilt of NBA talent has definitely shifted to the east coast, making the road ahead much more rocky for the Magic.
Can the Magic make the NBA Finals this year? Absolutely.
Will it be harder than the 2009 journey? Absolutely.
But, can the Magic do it without a consistent point guard? Absolutely not.
This is where Jameer Nelson comes in. Or, after last night's eye-popping performance against the new-look Knicks, Jam-Star Nelson.
When it mattered the most in the 4th quarter, the oft-absent guard woke up at the right time, pouring in 11 straight points to lock in the Magic victory. Nelson looked like a machine late in the game, nailing shot after shot, reminiscent of his 2009 all-star season. Even though Nelson has tended to struggle against Chauncey Billups throughout his career, the 6'0 Nelson stood tall Tuesday night with a 26 point performance.
But, unfortunately, these performances from Nelson have been more scattered during the season. Rather than play all-star like ball game after game, Magic fans have been left wondering which Jameer will show up on any given night this season. Will his game shine, or will it hide in the shadows? Throughout January, he averaged 9.5 points per game, a measly total as a starting point guard. His numbers increased a bit to 12.3 ppg for February, and the Magic did win a lot of games, but many were carried on the MVP-caliber shoulders of Dwight Howard. Putting up 12.3 ppg will not carry the Magic over the hump in a 7 game series against Miami or Boston.
Granted, I understand Gilbert Arenas's arrival in Orlando has perhaps affected Jameer's play, with the former all-star point guard challenging Nelson's reign as the Magic's key point guard. But, Nelson's minutes on the floor have remained essentially the same all season. Jameer is getting plenty of time to perform. Yet, his underwhelming performances have been leaving Magic fans concerned about the ability of the team to push deep into the playoffs come May.
Clutch outings like Jameer had last night restore the thinking that the Magic still have the firepower to be an Eastern Conference contender. When Dwight notches his nightly 30pt/15reb and can rely on his perimeter shooters to drain buckets, the Orlando Magic start to look a lot like the 2009 Finals squad again.
People have made a big deal about the superstar tandem of Stoudemire and Anthony in New York, giving the Knicks a double scoring threat that now makes them one of the elite East teams. The two combined for 55 points last night. Well, Orlando's tandem of Howard and Nelson actually did them one better, combining together for 56 points. This shows that when Nelson is 'on,' the Magic are one explosive team and have the same potential of the other 'beasts of the east.'
The point guard position is the essentially the driver for the team, starting every play and guiding the flow of the offense. If the Magic are looking to travel all the way to the NBA Finals, Nelson is the driver. A 26 point outing cannot be an anomaly for Jameer; it must become routine for Jameer and the Magic to have any shot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
If Nelson shows up and drives the team like he did last night more often, he will definitely become Orlando's Jam-Star and I like the Magic's chances.
If he doesn't though, and if Gilbert Arenas doesn't pick up the slack, the Magic will definitely idle away into NBA obscurity.
The fate of this season rides on both Howard's and Nelson's shoulders. Dwight has clearly shown he can carry the weight, but can Jameer keep bringing it? I hope so.
Video by Carlos Pineda.