Dwight Howard, Jameer Nelson refuse to let Magic wilt

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; D03

BOSTON -- Over the past few years, the Orlando Magic has made a number of moves and apparent upgrades to push the franchise closer to an elusive NBA championship -- from hiring Stan Van Gundy, to handing $118 million to Rashard Lewis, to essentially swapping Hedo Turkoglu for past-his-prime superstar Vince Carter. But facing elimination in the Eastern Conference finals on Monday, the Magic was allowed to hang on for at least one more game because of Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson, the two players who have remained constants in Orlando since they were drafted together in 2004.

Howard, the most physically gifted and imposing player on the roster, and Nelson, the most tough mentally and most confident of the bunch, used their own unique styles to carry the Magic and compensate for the virtual absence of Carter and a better but still subpar effort from Lewis. The two captains and biggest jokesters on the roster, Howard and Nelson combined to score all 10 of the Magic's points in overtime, as it defeated the Boston Celtics, 96-92, and forced a Game 5 at Amway Arena in Orlando on Wednesday.

"We've been here longer than anybody. We look at it as our team," Nelson said of himself and Howard. "A lot of things fall on us. We take pride in what we do in the course of a season. We just want to come out and prove to ourselves that it wasn't going to be any letdowns and come out fighting. And not coming out to fight to lose."

Howard continued his see-saw scoring outputs against Boston -- going from three field goals in Game 1 to 30 points in Game 2, back to three field goals in Game 3 and 32 points in Game 4. But he finally had a complete game, as he grabbed 16 rebounds -- single-handedly outrebounding the Celtics 5-4 in overtime -- and blocked four shots. He also abused his frontcourt counterparts, taking down Kendrick Perkins to prevent a layup and throwing an elbow to the back of Kevin Garnett's head that dropped Garnett to one knee.

"His will was very, very strong," Van Gundy said. "We need 15-plus rebounds from him. Plus he scored. But we need the rebounds every single night to be able to win. . . . obviously, a huge performance from him."

And, for the first time in this series, Howard finally had a running mate in Nelson.

Nelson totaled 23 points and nine assists and reminded the fans at TD Garden, who were serenading Rajon Rondo with MVP chants, that he was the point guard that led his team to two playoff sweeps and entered this series averaging 20.5 points per game.

"I thought his play throughout the game was the reason we got a chance to win," said Howard.

And, it provided a glimmer of hope that the Magic could do the improbable and win the series. NBA teams that have taken a 3-0 playoff lead are 93-0.

"At some point, somebody is going to come from 3-0 down and win a series. The only thing I knew for sure was it would start by winning Game 4," Van Gundy said. "You've got to play one game at a time, but you have to have a belief somewhere that you can win the series. Otherwise, there's just not enough to sustain you, keep you going in the game."

Rondo was slowed by foul trouble and spasms in his right leg, but Nelson stayed on the attack and provided a clinic in pick-and-roll production, as he tossed lobs to Howard for dunks and kept the Celtics off balance with his drives and step-back three-pointers. Nelson made two three-pointers in overtime, including a bad angle, 24-foot jumper off the glass. "I didn't call the bank shot," Nelson said. "I misjudged where I was. I was kind of, for the first time, wide open and it shocked me. I rushed my shot, but it went in."

But in addition to his scoring and playmaking, Nelson also had the defensive play of the game, when he knocked the ball away from Paul Pierce at the end of regulation and lunged to the floor to recover it as time expired. "Jameer Nelson dominated this entire game," Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said. "He went wherever he wanted to on the floor."

In many ways Nelson, an all-star last season, is making up for lost time this postseason, after missing the first three rounds last year while his teammates claimed the Eastern Conference. Nelson returned for the NBA Finals after shoulder surgery.

"You don't know what can happen tomorrow," Nelson said before this series began. "I just kind of take what happened last year as one of those things, a freak accident, of playing some of the best basketball of my NBA career and all of a sudden, 'Boom!' I'm out of it. Not necessarily saying I took anything for granted, but you always think because you're on the basketball court, you're going to play. I just want to seize the opportunity and the moment."

That moment continues because of the short and stocky Nelson and the strapping Howard, who refused to let the Magic go back home without playing at least one more game. "Me and Jameer showed our leadership by just playing hard," Howard said. "We never stopped losing faith in each other. It's not about points or anything like that. Just showing everybody that hey, follow us, we'll lead the way."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company