One of the major storylines that emerged following the Orlando Magic’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, aside from Chauncey Billups getting hurt (it was later confirmed that he suffered a torn left Achilles tendon), was that Jameer Nelson played well. It seems silly that Nelson playing well is something of note. In Nelson’s case though, when you’re having — by far — the worst season of your NBA career, it’s news when you’re not performing terribly.
After missing five games due to a concussion suffered against the New Orleans Hornets on January 27, Nelson returned to the floor against the Clippers and looked the best he’s ever been this season. Perhaps it was the time off. Perhaps it was facing off against Chris Paul. Whatever the case may be, Nelson had a bit of extra pep in his step, finishing with 15 points and 12 assists. No, this was not “2009 Nelson” on display. Not even close.
Nelson just looked like a competent basketball player again.
What aided in Nelson’s return from the dead?
“2009 Nelson” lobbyists and longtime Magic fans know this mantra — when Nelson goes, so go the Magic. To take it a step further, Nelson is at his most dangerous when he’s aggressive in pick-and-roll sets. The key word being ‘aggressive’ because Nelson isn’t always in attack mode. Against Los Angeles, Nelson was the aggressor in pick-and-rolls and Orlando benefitted from his play. Particularly in the fourth quarter during crunch time.
SLIDE 1, 2, 3:
Let’s begin in the first quarter because Nelson got started fairly quickly.
On this possession, the Magic run a 1/5 pick-and-roll with Nelson and Dwight Howard. This offensive set is one of the staples of head coach Stan Van Gundy’s playbook. In any case, Howard sets the screen for Nelson. Paul, likely aware of Nelson’s struggles on offense this season, goes under the screen. Nelson doesn’t take the bait, as he dashes into the lane. DeAndre Jordan isn’t quick enough to recover back defensively and Nelson makes the layup off the dribble.
SLIDE 4, 5, 6:
Fast-forward to the fourth quarter. With the game hanging in the balance, usually Van Gundy would entrust Hedo Turkgolu to run Orlando’s offense.
But with Turkoglu struggling against the Clippers, Van Gundy was forced to lean on Nelson instead. Again, Nelson runs a 1/5 pick-and-roll with Howard against Mo Williams and Reggie Evans. Williams chooses to go over the screen while Evans sags off as Nelson dribble penetrates. Nelson wisely takes the midrange jumper given to him and makes the shot. When people talk about “2009 Nelson,” this is the type of play he destroyed teams with regularly that year.
SLIDE 7, 8, 9:
On the very next possession, the Magic run a pick-and-roll set for Nelson once again. This time around, it’s Ryan Anderson setting the screen for Nelson. Which technically means this is a 1/4 pick-and-pop since Anderson likes to spot up from the perimeter. Anyways, Paul goes over the screen while Griffin sticks with Anderson. That’s all the space Nelson needs, as he dribble penetrates for a layup as Evans is too late in rotating over from the weak-side to help.
SLIDE 10, 11, 12:
It’s not all about scoring with Nelson, however. Nelson is equally dangerous when he’s a playmaker, and not just a scorer, in pick-and-rolls. A prime example occurred in overtime. Down by three points and needing a basket, Nelson ran a 1/5 pick-and-roll with Howard. Paul actually does an excellent job of sticking to Nelson initially, not allowing him to create any creases. Eventually, Nelson is able to free himself and attack the middle of the court.
Caron Butler conducts a basketball cardinal sin, ball-watching as Jason Richardson executed a backdoor cut and dunked the basketball following a feed from Nelson. This all is possible because Griffin, matching up with Howard at center at this stage in the ballgame, is dragged out of the paint by defending the pick-and-roll. It’s little nuances like that, with Richardson moving off the ball, that make Orlando’s crunch-time offense potent at times.
It remains to be seen if Nelson can snap out of his season-long funk and string together some good games. In all my years of watching the Magic play, Nelson has one of the most delicate playing mentalities I’ve ever seen.
When Nelson is good, he can be really good. When Nelson is bad, he can be really bad. Orlando can only hope it’s more of the former.
Eddy Rivera is the Editor-in-Chief of Magic Basketball. Follow him on Twitter.