Alston is back, but Magic still need Nelson if they want to compete
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Magic coach Stan Van Gundy tried a platoon system at point guard Thursday. That didn't work. For the final nine minutes of regulation Sunday, Van Gundy tried playing without a true point guard on the floor. That didn't work, either.
Tuesday, Van Gundy returned to a more traditional distribution of minutes for starter Rafer Alston and starter-rendered-backup-by-injury Jameer Nelson. The result? A 108-104 victory against the Lakers in Game 3 -- the first Finals win in franchise history -- a Finals-record 62.5 shooting percentage for the team and 20 points for Alston.
Finally Alston, derided as pouty after his complaints about being taken out of his rhythm during Game 1, could smile. "Stan and I have a great relationship," Alston said. "He understands that he's just trying to coach to win games, and I'm trying to play to help him win games. No. 1 is don't take it personal."
Van Gundy probably deserves a pass for his experimentation with the point-guard minutes in the first two games. He had gone into these playoffs believing Nelson, the All-Star who shredded the labrum in his right shoulder four months ago, probably wouldn't be available. Alston, the former streetball legend acquired from the Rockets in the wake of Nelson's injury, had led the Magic to the Finals. So when Nelson came back sooner than expected, Van Gundy acted like a college football coach with a quarterback controversy. He assigned each point guard a quarter in the first half of Game 1.
There's a saying in football. If you don't have one quarterback, you've got no quarterback. The same theory applies to the point guard in basketball. The guy who starts every offensive play with the ball in his hands sets the pace for the entire offense. Tuesday, that guy was Alston, who played 37 minutes to Nelson's 11.
Whether he was slashing from the top of the key for a layup to give the Magic the lead late in the first half or putting a spin move on Lakers guard Derek Fisher that made 17,000 people say "OOOOOOH" simultaneously, Alston looked like a more confident player. The Magic fed off that confidence.
Van Gundy said he needed two days to come up with his pep talk for Alston. The speech, in its entirety, was this: "Play your game." Alston appreciated the chat. "I think that was the most motivating thing, not only what Coach said, but what I told myself, to go out, enjoy, have fun," Alston said. "You're playing in the NBA Finals, a dream come true. Let it all hang out."
After the win, Van Gundy mused about the oratory that helped Alston snap a slump that caused him to score only 10 points on 3-of-17 shooting in the first two games of the series. "I'm a motivational genius," Van Gundy joked. "That's what I am."
Still, Van Gundy warned against attaching too much cosmic significance to one good game. He wants Alston to consistently produce performances such as Tuesday's. "Rafer has bounced back well in the playoffs before," Van Gundy said. "He's had some great games in the playoffs, and he's had some other games that weren't as good. That's just sort of the way it goes. I don't think there's any big psychological mystery to the whole thing."
Now that the Magic have found an arrangement that seems to work, only one man could toss a monkey wrench. Fortunately for Orlando, Nelson doesn't plan to complain. "The team is more important," Nelson said. "As long as I do my job and play hard, everything will take care of itself."
And if the Magic want to make this a truly competitive series, Nelson will have to contribute. Alston knows that, and now that the Magic have established a point-guard pecking order, he hopes Nelson will find his rhythm Thursday the way Alston found his Tuesday. "We need Jameer to get going," Alston said. "He encourages me. I encourage him. We need him to get going, to be the Jameer of old."