'Crib Midget' Nelson Carries the Magic
This was about making up for lost time.
Nelson, the smallest man on the floor, set the tone quickly Sunday in the Magic's 98-89 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
It was the Little Big Man Show. The Magic rode him early, then hung on through a rocky second half, turning to him time and again down the stretch.
With Dwight Howard struggling to stay in the game, and Vince Carter struggling to shoot straight, Nelson delivered the kind of performance that showed why they gave him the title of captain.
"I was happy to have the little crib midget back,'' Howard said. "It was great to have him back out there again.''
He was there when they needed him, avoiding what could have turned into an embarrassing first-game upset for a team with the second-best record in the NBA.
Nelson, who averaged 12.6 points this season, had 14 points in the first eight minutes. He had 24 by halftime, mixing long bombs with strong drives to the basket, putting up shots both through and around longer arms.
He finished with 32 points, matching his career high. He hit 10-of-18 shots and four-of-six from 3-point range. He took the Magic to their 59-43 lead at intermission, hitting a 35-footer as time expired. And when they struggled in the second half, he was there again.
"When I'm in the attack mode, we're pretty good offensively,'' Nelson said. "I tried to set the tone offensively for us. We can handle a little adversity. That's why we are one of the good teams in this league.''
Although he did much of his scoring early, it was Nelson in the third period who cooled off a Charlotte rally with his best Steve Nash impression, a nifty no-look pass through a hole that didn't exist to find center Marcin Gortat for an easy score.
It was Nelson in the fourth -- with Charlottte again rallying -- who stuffed Bobcats guard D.J. Augustine, who was trying to beat the shot clock and failed.
"Jameer just had his way. He impacted the game,'' Bobcats coach Larry Brown said. "This has become a league of unbelievable point guards. If you respect this game, you have to respect what he does.''
A year ago, Nelson was an afterthought while journeyman Rafer Alston orchestrated the offense. Nelson had missed the second half of the season, and missed their playoff run, making an obviously rusty, ill-timed return as a reserve in the Finals, which threw off their chemistry and hurt them in the Finals.
The Magic, though, remained so confident in Nelson's leadership ability they sent Alston packing to avoid any point guard controversy this season. He was sent to New Jersey as a throw-in in the trade for Carter.
"It feels great to be in the playoffs. It was great to be out there, and not sitting in a suit on the bench cheering them on,'' Nelson said. "But I don't worry what people say or think or write. I just worry about what the guys in the locker room say.''
The Magic needed everything Nelson could bring Sunday. Howard still was great defensively, but he was useless on offense. Carter wasn't much better. Howard had five points, seven rebounds and nine blocked shots. He made only one of six free throws. Carter made only four of 19 shots for 12 points.
The Bobcats had planned to use three different centers to hack away at Howard and force him to the free throw line, but they didn't even need the strategy because Howard took himself out of the game with foul trouble. He played only 28 minutes.
"I know what I mean to this team,'' Nelson said. "I play for the guys on this team, and I do what I need to do.''