LOS ANGELES – Rafer Alston(notes) stood in front of his locker, neatly dressed in a crisp white suit. He was cool, he said. No reason to complain. No reason to march up to his coach and ask for his minutes back. He'd have to adjust, but he's built a career out of adjusting.
Sitting one locker over, to the left, was Jameer Nelson(notes). A couple of ice bags were taped to his right shoulder. He had just played 23 minutes in the opening game of the NBA Finals, which were about 23 more than anyone had expected him to play five days ago. He said he felt good, aside, of course, from the 100-75 beating the Los Angeles Lakers had handed his Orlando Magic on Thursday.
Anyone watching could appreciate the irony, as awkward as it seemed. Alston standing, Nelson sitting a few feet behind his left shoulder. Starter and backup. One yielding to the other.
The Magic walked out of Staples Center thrashed and humbled, and now they must ask themselves this: By bringing back one point guard, did they lose another?
"It's tough," Alston said. "It's tough."
Nelson hadn't played in four months since injuring his right shoulder. He underwent surgery that was called "season-ending" and as recently as a week or so ago, Magic general manager Otis Smith said the team still had no plans for him to return. But, as Nelson likes to say, "miracles do happen." His shoulder felt strong, he looked effective enough in practice, and sometime on Thursday Magic coach Stan Van Gundy decided he'd play Nelson.
The surprise wasn't that Nelson played. It was how Van Gundy used him. After the first quarter ended, Alston came out, Nelson went in. Two minutes went by, then four, then eight, then 12. Nelson played the entire second quarter. Alston sat.
Nelson played well, or, in Van Gundy's words, "very, very well," for much of the quarter. He quickly found Marcin Gortat(notes) with a sharp pass for a layup. He set up Rashard Lewis(notes) for a 3-pointer. He hit a fadeaway along the baseline. Another pass led to a layup by Courtney Lee(notes), and, suddenly, the Magic were sitting on a five-point lead.
The Magic also gave up that lead with Nelson on the floor, and he wasn't nearly as effective in the second half, finishing with six points and four assists while missing six of his nine shots. Alston missed seven of nine shots and never settled into a rhythm after returning to start the third quarter.
The Magic didn't lose because of Nelson and Alston; the Lakers' 55-41 rebounding edge, along with Kobe Bryant's(notes) 40 points had more to do with that. But the Magic also didn't get as much out of their point guards as they'll need going forward. The dilemma for Van Gundy: If he thinks Nelson is capable of playing nearly 25 minutes a night, shouldn't he go ahead and start him? Won't Alston just be looking over his shoulder for the remainder of these Finals, as short-lived as they may be?
Alston said all the right things, but, clearly, he wasn't completely comfortable with sitting out the entire second quarter. "I haven't done that my entire career," he said.
"You have to get a feel and a flow to the game," Alston said. "And when your minutes happen to switch like that, you have to figure out on the fly how to get a rhythm and a tempo and a flow to the game.
"… It's something to adjust to. It's not like it's Game 41. It's the Finals and you have to do it quick."
Deep down, Alston also must be thinking this: What in the hell just happened?
Since the Magic acquired him from the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline, Alston had contributed about as much as the team could have hoped. He helped guide the Magic through the playoffs, and his performance in Games 3 and 4 of the East finals, when he totaled 44 points, was a big reason why they made it this far. He was, Alston said, "in a big-time flow."
"I knew I was going to be on the court a lot," he said. "I knew I was going to pick my spots to be aggressive to continue to get guys going. That's part of being a starter. You know you're going to be in the flow most of the night."
Alston admitted he was "a little surprised" Nelson was able to come back nearly two months early than projected. But he also isn't stupid. "Of course, we understood we had to welcome our All-Star back," he said.
Nelson is more than an All-Star to the Magic. He's a captain, a leader. And, as even Alston has admitted, Nelson is the better shooter. As well as Alston played in Games 3 and 4 of the East finals, he also missed 20 of 26 shots in Games 5 and 6. If the Lakers are going to continue to pack in their defense around Dwight Howard(notes) and clog the lane then the Magic are going to have to make them pay with their 3-point shooting.
The problem for the Magic is that, for now, there seems to be a level of diminishing return with Nelson, and that's understandable considering he hadn't played since Feb. 2. "I don't think he'll be back to All-Star Jameer Nelson or where he was at before he got injured," Lewis said. "I think he can help us in spurts of the game, but I don't think he's going to play 38, 40 minutes."
Even 23 was a lot. Asked if he expected to play that many, Nelson laughed.
"Hell no," he said.
The question now is whether Nelson's role will expand, even if he says he doesn't expect to start. "I'm coming back to relieve Ray when he needs a break and just do what the team needs," Nelson said. "I think he's done a great job and no matter what he deserves to start."
Van Gundy was right about one thing: The easy decision would have been to not play Nelson. He wouldn't have opened himself to criticism, he wouldn't have created chemistry concerns.
But Van Gundy also owed it to the Magic to see what Nelson could do, and, now, he owes the team something else. Deciding who to start is the first step. Committing to him is the next.