Van Gundy Needs to Clean Up Orlando's Point Guard Mess
The problem is, there's no easy way to do that. Between Jameer Nelson playing 23 minutes, Rafer Alston blaming his extended time on the bench for his poor shooting, and Anthony Johnson picking up a DNP-CD, Van Gundy might just have too many issues to resolve as his team prepares for round two against the Lakers.
Heading into Game 1, there's no question that Van Gundy was in a difficult situation. On the one hand, he had Nelson, his All-Star and team leader, who hadn't played in four months due to a shoulder injury, but had been rehabbing and practicing with the team in hopes of returning.
On the other hand, though, he had a team that was playing its best basketball of the season with Alston running the point, and Johnson spelling him off the bench. It would seem that Van Gundy could have gone a lot of different ways with how he worked Nelson back into the rotation, but he picked the one scenario that made the least amount of sense.
After Alston took his usual place in the starting lineup and quarterbacked the team to a two-point lead by the time the first quarter had ended, Van Gundy gave Nelson his first minutes of the postseason to start the second. While Nelson played alright to begin with, he started to show signs of rust as the period went on. And with the Lakers mounting a charge, he was in no condition to be out there trying to steady his club against the best team in the league.
Van Gundy left Nelson in for all 12 minutes of the second quarter, and by the time it was over, the Lakers were up by 10 heading into halftime.
Now obviously, all of that wasn't Nelson's fault. But he was clearly winded towards the end of the period, and Van Gundy admitted that he left Nelson in for too long in the second. He also said he'll limit him to stretches of 6-7 minutes as the series wears on.
So, does that mean more time for Alston, or any time for Johnson? Either way, based on how Van Gundy treated the pair in Game 1, the coach probably needs to hope they have thin skin, and a short memory.
Alston went 0-for-5 from the field in the second half, after sitting for the entire second quarter in favor of Nelson. In his postgame remarks, Van Gundy wouldn't allow Alston to pin his poor shooting on Nelson's minutes, and said "As far as Rafer, having that affect his play in the second half, that's up to him. If I'm looking from the outside, that sounds like an excuse to me."
Rafer wasn't making any excuses at the time, but he certainly didn't allow Van Gundy to get away with that comment without responding to it.
"I'll give you a good excuse," Alston said. "I sat 12 minutes of real game time, I sat about 30 minutes of real life time. So there's an excuse."
Fantastic, just what the underdog in the NBA Finals needs after suffering a blowout in Game 1 -- a coach and player going back and forth at each other through the press.
The way I see it, Van Gundy has two options to restore his team's confidence at the point guard spot.
Option 1: Start Nelson, bring Alston off the bench, and leave Johnson there.
If Van Gundy believes Nelson is healthy enough to go 23 minutes at this point, then why not let him do it in his old spot, as a member of the starting lineup? Stick to the basic rotation patterns that you've had all postseason long, and just sub in Alston at the times in the game where you used to put in Johnson. That way, everyone knows what to expect, and there should be no excuses -- from Alston or Nelson -- about being cold due to being on the bench for too long, or being winded from playing a 12-minute stretch your first time back on the floor in (roughly) forever.
Now, Van Gundy and Nelson have both come out and said that Alston is going to remain the starter. But Van Gundy did leak a report that Nelson was out for Game 1, and well, we all saw how that turned out. Let's just say it's not out of the realm of possibility for SVG to change his mind, shall we?
Option 2: Start Alston, bring Nelson off the bench in shorter bursts, and give Johnson the rest of the backup minutes.
As the number three seed in the East, the Magic beat the top two teams in the conference to get to this point. So, coach, why not go with what got you here? Let Rafer run with the starters, and bring Jameer off the bench -- but in a more limited capacity.
As great as Nelson was before his injury, the fact is he hasn't played since February, and you're trying to give him his first minutes since then in the freaking Finals against the Lakers? Not the best idea in the world, right? Especially considering that the Magic got used to playing with Alston and Johnson throughout their run to the conference title; giving Jameer that much run in Game 1 just didn't make any sense.
Hindsight is 20-20, but if I were Van Gundy, I would have sat Nelson for the first game of the Finals. Again, why mess with the lineup or the chemistry that got you here? Play the Lakers with the team that beat the Celtics and the Cavaliers, and see what happens. I guarantee the result would have been no worse than how things actually played out, and even if it had turned out to be similarly bad for Orlando, the team would have gotten an emotional lift from Nelson's return in Game 2.
So those are two logical choices for the Magic going forward in this series at the one spot. But the reality is, Van Gundy doesn't have a lot of options. He played Nelson 23 minutes in Game 1, so he can't exactly rein him in too much after that. Alston didn't enjoy all of the time he spent on the bench in that first game, and his poor shooting was a reflection of that.
Something's got to give at the point guard spot for the Magic, and how Van Gundy handles it for the rest of the series is going to be a big factor in the Magic's ability to compete for a championship -- as opposed to simply being the ones on the floor watching as the Lakers are the team that is out there winning it.