Fine — I can kind of hear the argument from fans of the Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks. "I can't stand that little guy," these somber supporters burble. "What with his 'blowing past our defenders,' 'getting to the cup with frequency' and 'conducting his team like a maestro seeking salvation at the end of the next movement.'"
It's a little more understandable, but it's still not OK. Just because Crazy Nuts The Executioner chopped your squad's head off doesn't mean you shouldn't admire the sharpness of his blade. And make no mistake: The former Naismith College Player of the Year is killing them out there.
After averaging 12.6 points and 5.4 assists in 28.6 minutes per game during the regular season, the Orlando Magic point guard has stepped his game up considerably in these playoffs, and it's one of the main reasons that many now wonder whether the Eastern Conference Finals-bound Magic, more than the Cleveland Cavaliers or Los Angeles Lakers, are the new favorites to win this year's NBA championship.
Just after tipoff of Game 3 in the Magic's series against the Hawks, ESPN color commentator Doris Burke praised Nelson's play through the first two rounds, saying "He has been at an extraordinarily high level." Care to know just how high?
In eight games spanning two rounds, all Orlando wins, he's averaging 20.5 points per game, nearly eight more than his season mark. He's doing it efficiently, shooting 51.9 percent from the field (up from 44.9 percent during the season) and 40.4 percent from downtown (up from 38.1). While his free-throw percentage has dipped from 84.5 percent for the year to 80.5 percent in the playoffs, the decline stems from an uncharacteristic 1-for-4 performance in Game 4 — through seven games, he was hitting at an 86.5 percent clip.
The advanced stats bear out the boom, too. Nelson's Player Efficiency Rating has spiked to 27.3 (up from 15.5), good for second among players on teams still competing, behind LeBron James(notes). He's tops among playoff performers in Offensive Rating (135.2), second in Win Shares (2.0), fourth in Steal Percentage (2.7) and fourth in True Shooting Percentage (65.1).
Amid Nelson's offensive explosion, his distribution of the rock as Orlando's primary ball-handler has declined ever so slightly — he's averaging 5.3 dimes per game and assisting on 31.1 percent of Orlando buckets when he's on the floor, down from 32.1 percent during the regular season. But he's mitigated that by taking much better care of the ball, turning it over just 8.0 times per 100 possessions through the first two rounds compared to 15.5/100 on the year, and improving his assist-to-turnover ratio to 3.82-to-1 from a regular-season mark of 2.53-to-1. (Mil gracias to Basketball-Reference for all the stats.)
Nelson has punctuated his across-the-board statistical improvement with several plays of the Sam Cassell variety that have cemented his status — even playing alongside more talented teammates Dwight Howard(notes), Rashard Lewis(notes) and Vince Carter(notes) — as the Magic's iciest performer.Cases in point: Late in the third quarter of Game 2, Nelson answered Jamal Crawford's(notes) buzzer-beater with one of his own, taking all the wind out of Atlanta's sails and all but sealing a 2-0 series lead. Or one possession in the third quarter of the Game 3 blowout, when he got the ball with the shot clock winding down and bailed out a possession that had been well-defensed by the Hawks, dotting Mike Bibby(notes) with a demoralizing foot-on-the-line bomb and pushing the Magic lead to 24.
While Dwight Howard's suffocating paint defense, Orlando's three-point hailstorm and Atlanta's whimpering finish will earn more Game 4 headlines than Nelson's 16-point, nine-assist outing, it was the point guard who took coach Stan Van Gundy's step-on-their-throats tone on the court from the opening tip. Nelson pushed early, netting four buckets and two dimes in the game's first six minutes, leaning on a Hawks team already woozy from three games of domination and primed to collapse. He finished the quarter with 10 points, five assists and a steal, pushing Orlando to a 34-23 lead that it would never relinquish.
With 2:49 left in the first half and the lead trimmed to six, Nelson drove to the foul line, drew the attention of Al Horford(notes), then dished to a suddenly open Marcin Gortat(notes) for a point-blank layup that sapped the Hawks' momentum. Two minutes later, he shook Marvin Williams(notes) with the shot clock winding down and nailed a 19-foot step-back jumper from the left of the key that pushed the lead to 10.
Whenever the Hawks bowed their backs, it seemed, Nelson just kept on leaning, daring them to answer back, to do something about it. They never did.
"Now, he's a tough guy. He's a little guy, but he's a tough guy. Plays with his heart," ESPN color commentator Hubie Brown said after Nelson toyed with Joe Johnson on his way to the tin for a layup in the third quarter of Game 2. "See, he's going to challenge you. Size? No problem here."
Nelson was playing arguably the best ball of his career last season before suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder that knocked him out of commission from February through the NBA Finals in June (and, frankly, probably should have kept him in the cooler until the start of this year). Healthy again, surrounded by talent and fueled by the prospect of championship-round redemption, he's operating at a whole new level, and it's a pleasure to see. Dude's doing work, kids. Admire the sharpness.