Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Nelson's resurgence could lead Magic to title

After a sweep of the Hawks that was way too easy, Orlando has now won 14 straight games dating back to the regular season. Does their dominance of the first two rounds make them the new favorite to take home an NBA title?

In a word: No. Sweeping the Bobcats and the Hawks (who everybody including myself vastly overrated) does not change what you need to do against the league's top teams like the Lakers and Cavaliers.

What could make Orlando the new favorite to win the title is improved point guard play from Jameer Nelson. Finally fully healthy for the first time in over a year, Nelson is playing like he did before he tore his labrum last February.

Before his injury, Nelson was averaging 16.7 points and 5.4 assists per game. His assist total remained the same this season, but his scoring dropped to 12.6 points per game. His shooting percentage dropped from 50.3% last year to 44.9% this year, but he has been great during Orlando's recent win streak.

Nelson has averaged 18.3 points (on 52.3% shooting) and 5.6 assists in those 14 games, including a 20.5 scoring average in the Magic's eight playoff games. His resurgence has played an integral part in Orlando's dominance of Charlotte and Atlanta.

Besides Nelson's strong play, Dwight Howard's improving post-up game (he hit 27 of 32 field goals in the Hawks series), Vince Carter's offensive efficiency, Rashard Lewis' reliable long-distance shooting and important contributions from role players like Mickael Pietrus, Marcin Gortat and Matt Barnes give the Magic everything they need to be a legitimate title contender.

The Cavaliers are no lock to get by the Celtics at this point with that series tied 2-2 heading back to Cleveland for Game 5, where Boston has already won in the series. And even if the Cavs do win, a well-rested Magic team will be waiting to repeat last year's Conference Finals victory over LeBron James and company.

Take into account that Nelson did not play at all in that series, which the Magic won 4-2, and it's easy to see why many think Orlando has the goods to make another run to the NBA Finals. Yes the Cavs added Shaquille O'Neal and Antawn Jamison, but Orlando is still a better and deeper basketball team. The only thing they have over the Magic is a dominant offensive force like LeBron James, who still is no Kobe if you read my last post.

If the Magic do get past the Cavs (or Celtics, which should be easier than a series with Cleveland thanks to home-court), the Lakers seem poised to represent the West. Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire will definitely have something to say about that with the Suns playing as well as they are, but I think a Lakers-Magic rematch is likely.

Nelson returned for the Finals last season, but totaled just 90 minutes, 19 points and 14 assists in five games. He is obviously healthy again and ready to make a much larger impact in his team's title chase this season. His presence might even propel the Magic to an NBA title this season, with an aging Lakers squad looking much less explosive this season.

Without Nelson, I don't know if the Magic even make it out of the East. But with him, the sky is the limit for this well-balanced squad. Hedo who?

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