Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
So far, Jameer Nelson has been having a good year for the Orlando Magic.
Fully healthy and springboarding off a strong performance in the 2010 NBA Playoffs, Nelson is back to playing like an All-Star point guard during the regular season. A big reason that the Magic rank fourth in the NBA in efficiency differential (+8.0) and second in point differential (+7.9) is because of Nelson’s stellar production offensively. It may surprise people, however, that Nelson is doing more to help Orlando on offense with his passing than at any other point in his career.
Is this trend sustainable?
It remains to be seen. But let’s go back in time and offer a refresher course on how Nelson emerged as one of the better point guards in the league for the Magic.
How about January 16, 2009 against the Los Angeles Lakers?
There are many Magic fans that remember that date vividly because it marked not only the “official” arrival of Orlando as an elite team and championship contender, but it was Nelson’s coming out party as a clutch performer and emergence as an All-Star caliber player in front of a nationally televised audience. Yes, Nelson had big games against the likes of the San Antonio Spurs and other good teams earlier in that year but this was the Lakers. At Staples Center. In primetime.
It was something more than just a regular season game for the Magic.
And for Nelson, it was his christening.
For the evening, Nelson had 28 points and eight assists while all of his damage came in the fourth quarter when the game was going back-and-forth between Orlando and Los Angeles in a matchup of two heavyweights.
The traits that people have been accustomed to seeing from Nelson — deadly shooter, drive-and-kick extraordinaire, pick and roll maven — these past few years were on full display against the Lakers in the period. It was an iconic sequence of events for Nelson because not only did it reveal his growth in head coach Stan Van Gundy‘s system but also unearthed his potential to be an impact player for the Magic when the stakes were high.
Nelson displayed flashes of brilliance in the 2008 NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors and Detroit Pistons, but everything came together that night.
To quickly set the backstory of the game, Orlando faced off against Los Angeles with one of the top records in the NBA at the time (31-8). The Magic were on the West Coast for a four-game road trip and had already beaten the Spurs as well as the Sacramento Kings (set a league record in that game with 23 three-pointers). Up next was Los Angeles, a team that Orlando previously defeated at the Amway Arena on December 20 by the score of 106-103. For the Magic, they had a chance to sweep the season series with the Lakers for the first time in franchise history.
Likewise, Orlando had a chance to capture a signature win and firmly entrench themselves in the title discussion alongside Los Angeles, the Boston Celtics, and Cleveland Cavaliers. Needless to say, the mainstream media had their doubts about the Magic as an elite team.
That would change, as the Lakers soon found out.
For two hours and 37 minutes, Orlando and Los Angeles engaged in one of the most compelling regular games in recent years. The Lakers were in control in the first half but the second half saw the Magic rise to the challenge. After trailing at halftime by 10 points at 54-44, Orlando went on a 25-6 run and had a nine point lead in a span of roughly seven minutes. From there, the Lakers responded with a 15-5 run and were able to retake the lead heading into the fourth quarter. The third quarter was a game of runs and it was fascinating to watch the wild swings of momentum that occurred in the period.
During the Magic’s run, people got a firsthand look at how devastating the offense was against an excellent defense with Rashard Lewis serving as a three-point sniper in transition, Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu manning the pick and roll, and Dwight Howard balancing everything out with his presence in the paint.
A fourth quarter to be remembered
With 9:07 left in the fourth quarter, Nelson checked back into the game after back-up point guard Anthony Johnson was able to provide him with a breather.
From there, Nelson worked his magic.
It took a minute for Nelson’s presence to be felt. Derek Fisher missed a shot from the corner and Howard grabbed the rebound. From there, Nelson received the outlet pass and zipped the ball to J.J. Redick in transition for a three.
After a few possessions, Nelson got another assist after he fed Howard a beautiful alley-oop pass for a dunk following an offensive rebound.
With six minutes left in the game and Orlando trading baskets with Los Angeles, it was interesting to see how the remainder of the period unfolded. Kobe Bryant was playing masterfully and putting together a triple-double, and a question that could have been asked at the time was how would the Magic respond? Sure, Orlando was able to execute in the closing minutes on the road win against San Antonio but this was different. The Lakers were a step above in difficulty and had a top five player (Bryant) running the triangle offense to perfection.
Ironically enough, it was Bryant’s airball three-point attempt at the 5:12 mark that turned Nelson loose. Nelson retrieved the basketball under the basket, then raced across the court in transition and blew past Derek Fisher for a layup. For Nelson, it was the beginning of five minutes of dominance offensively.
- [4th quarter, 4:24] On this possession, Nelson makes quick work in the 1/5 pick and roll with Howard. Fisher goes under the screen set by Howard and Nelson doesn’t hesitate to put up, and make, a three-pointer.
- [4th quarter, 3:36] After Bryant attacks the basket and tries to draw a foul on Howard, to no avail, Nelson gets the outlet pass from Courtney Lee. The key to this play is the fact that Bryant is contesting the call to a referee. While that’s happening, the Magic have a 5-on-4 advantage on the fast break. Fisher tries to account for both Nelson and Turkoglu in transition. Knowing Fisher is caught in a bind, Nelson wisely pulls up at the three-point line and makes it appear as if he’s going to shoot but at the last second, he passes the ball to Turkoglu. Trevor Ariza tries to recover and contest Turkoglu’s shot but it’s too late, and it’s another made three-pointer.
- [4th quarter, 1:26] Orlando and Los Angeles continue to trade baskets but once again, Nelson makes a clutch shot. Howard goes to set a screen for Nelson at the top of the key for another 1/5 pick and roll. Nelson, however, opts to dribble away from the screen with Fisher and Pau Gasol attempting to trap him on the perimeter. With the momentum of Fisher and Gasol guiding them away from Nelson, that’s when he strikes. Without any hesitation, Nelson puts up a three with Gasol all over his grill and drills it.
- [4th quarter, 0:35] Nelson’s shining moment. There’s less than a minute to play in the game and the Magic opt to execute the 3/5 pick and roll with Turkoglu and Howard. Turkoglu dribble penetrates but swings the basketball behind his head to Lewis at the top of the key. The key on this play, however, is that Turkoglu attracts two defenders on him — Lamar Odom and Vladimir Radmanovic. Gasol has a body on Howard and Fisher sprints to Lewis to run him off the three-point line. Guess who’s wide open? As soon as Lewis receives the ball from Turkoglu, he swings it to Nelson on the wing and Odom tries his hardest to contest the shot. Too late. Nelson catches the basketball in rhythm and drills another three-pointer. The shot gave Orlando a 104-103 lead.
The reaction of the crowd at the Staples Center was priceless. All at once, fans groan and put their hands on their heads in disbelief.
Nelson, on the other hand, is soaking in the moment.
Nelson made three three-pointers in the quarter and each shot allowed the Magic to regain the lead. Pressure shooting at its finest. After Nelson’s third three in the game’s closing moments, Bryant tried to respond with a shot on the other end of the floor but he missed it and that was that.
Every time Nelson makes a game-winning shot, as he has this season against the New Jersey Nets and Indiana Pacers, it’s hard not to harken back to that road game against the Lakers in 2009.
For Nelson, that’s when he arrived.