LOS ANGELES – Otis Smith knows how it looks. He declared Jameer Nelson(notes) out for the season. A week later that prognosis was upgraded to "a very smidgen of a chance" Nelson would return during the NBA Finals. At some point, it became a "50-50" prospect.
"I don't know," Smith said late Wednesday afternoon.
As general manager of the Magic, Smith thinks Nelson is probably healthy enough to play. He thinks his All-Star point guard's conditioning is better than expected. Nelson, who has been sidelined since tearing his labrum in his right shoulder on Feb. 2, also participated in the team's final practice without any problems.
So the question no longer seems to be as much about whether Nelson is ready, but rather if the Magic are ready for him to return. The answer doesn't seem to be difficult.
If you need him, use him. If you don't, don't.
The Magic rolled in here off an impressive thumping of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Rafer Alston(notes) played great at times, well enough at others. Not even Nelson is pining for his old starting job back.
Jameer Nelson vs. L.A. in '08-'09 season
But if Magic coach Stan Van Gundy finds himself needing an extra shooter on the floor, or a change-of-pace guard, or even someone who can make clutch free throws as the team tries to bleed out the clock? Why not give Nelson a chance? Desperate moments call for desperate solutions, and it doesn't get any more desperate than the Finals.
"He hasn't played in four months," Smith said. "We have seven games left and then he can rest."
This, of course, assumes Nelson is healthy. He's two months ahead of his scheduled return, but he went through a contact practice this week and says his confidence is high. Van Gundy, like Smith, also thinks Nelson is probably ready to play.
"Now, how much he can do, I don't know," Van Gundy said. "… I don't think it's going to be like a Willis Reed moment or anything."
The Magic have already seen what Nelson can do against the Lakers. He averaged 27.5 points while making 20 of 34 shots in the two regular-season victories over them. He's a tremendous threat, when healthy, off the pick-and-roll, and the Lakers have struggled to defend the pick-and-roll for much of the season. No one expects Nelson to be ready to contribute anything close to that in the Finals, but having him as an option certainly doesn't hurt.
"The one thing with Jameer," Alston said, "is he can shoot it better than me."
Nelson said he feels considerably stronger than he did three months ago when he underwent surgery that, at the time, was described as "season-ending." Nor does he sound too worried about getting knocked to the court or running through screens. The way he sees it, there's always a chance of getting hurt.
"I'm past it," Nelson said. "If I'm able to play and I go out there worrying about injuries, not playing reckless the way I play, then I shouldn't be playing.
"… People say I shouldn't even be trying this, and maybe I shouldn't. But I'm not second-guessing myself. The team's not second-guessing me."
Nelson's injury actually helped toughen the Magic. He was their second-best player when he went down in early February, enjoying an All-Star season in which he shot 50 percent from the field, 45 percent from the 3-point line and nearly 90 percent from the foul line. Few, if any, people expected the Magic to survive his loss. Making the playoffs was one thing, but contending for a title? It didn't seem possible.
"You might lose somebody else along the way, but you don't lose an All-Star and get this far," Van Gundy said.
The Magic did, and a lot of credit needs to go to Smith, who worked the trade for Alston two weeks later. Alston helped keep the Magic afloat, and he's gone on to average 12.7 points in the playoffs. In Orlando's critical Game 3 and 4 victories over the Cavs in the East finals, he scored 18 and 26 points.
Time and again, the Magic have proven their resilience in these playoffs. They trailed the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round and won. Down 3-2 to the Boston Celtics in the conference semifinals, they rallied to win. After shrugging off LeBron James'(notes) miracle at the end of Game 2 of the East finals, they took control of the series two nights later.
The Finals are different, of course. The Lakers have been here before. Most of the Magic can't say the same, and that's another reason why they should smile if Nelson ever pulls on his uniform in this series.
"I think the one thing that he brings to our team is he's fearless," Dwight Howard(notes) said. "When he's playing like that, when he's playing with no care in the world and he's not afraid to do anything, then that's when everybody on the team, they follow behind him."
As Nelson walked onto the court Wednesday afternoon, his practice shirt was slung backward around his neck as a makeshift cape. With or without Nelson, the Magic already have their Superman. They also know they shouldn't count on much from Mighty Mouse, even if he does play.
But if they think Nelson can help, in some way, at some point?
- Otis Smith