"[Team X] will only go so far in the postseason as [Player Y] takes them" is an axiom in professional sports, and almost invariably [Player Y] is indisputably the team's best player. As it applies to the Orlando Magic in this year's playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks--or against anyone--Dwight Howard is [Player Y]. And it's equally popular to say, in life at large, that axioms become popular because they are true.
That axiom does not apply in this case.
What Howard does for the Magic--end opponent possessions, score inside, space the floor for his teammates--will be there every night, no matter the opponent, based solely on the consistency and reliability his reputation and skill afford him. No, for the Magic to do anything of note this postseason, the task falls to Jammer Nelson.
More than any other player, even Howard, Orlando's diminutive point guard makes the team go offensively. Nelson's skill in running the pick-and-roll, as either a driver or shooter, fits perfectly in coach Stan Van Gundy's pick-and-roll-heavy approach, while his ability to hit jumpers off the catch helps space the floor and enables him to play off the ball if necessary. It's true against all teams.
Some Magic fans choose to make Nelson the scapegoat when the team plays poorly, but seldom acknowledge his contributions when it wins. It's unfair, but I get the impression Nelson does not care about any of that. He continues to go about his business. His draw-and-kick, knock-down-shooting business.
Perhaps that seems like high praise for a guy who stands as, by most measures, a league-average point guard. But Nelson has come through in the playoffs before, and he'll have to do so again.
Discounting his ill-timed cameo in the 2009 NBA Finals, in which he returned to the court after a four-month layoff due to shoulder surgery, Nelson has shot 48.8 percent from the field and 42.4 percent from three-point range in his playoff career under Van Gundy. That bump in productivity coincides with a tendency to shoot more accurately in April, even in the regular season. Since Van Gundy took over in 2007/08, Nelson's shooting numbers in April, not counting the playoffs, look like this:
Indeed, Nelson improves considerably from his career averages in April, which continues into the postseason. The Magic will count on him against Atlanta, and he should be able to deliver, but probably not to the extent he did in last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals. In that sweep, Nelson averaged 17.3 points per game on 65.6 percent True Shooting while matched up against Mike Bibby. Since then, the Hawks unloaded Bibby and installed Kirk Hinrich, a 6-foot-4 combo guard, at the position.
That's an upgrade. At this stage of his career, Bibby's employers must work overtime to accommodate his defensive shortcomings. He's a valuable offensive cog who merits playing time, but his lack of skill, quickness, and awareness on the other end of the court force his teams to design schemes wherein it's possible to hide him. Two years ago, had the Hawks played the Magic, Bibby likely would have drawn the assignment of defending shooting guard Courtney Lee, who spent most of his time in the halfcourt patrolling the weak-side corner. Atlanta had no such luxury last season, with Vince Carter in Orlando pinstripes, meaning Bibby had to follow Nelson through Dwight Howard screens.
Hinrich is different. He's a guy one can trust on the defensive end, and for more than just his size. He's physical, intelligent, and has yet to wear down; he still has enough speed and fight to get through screens and keep his man in front of him. Nelson won't be able to get into the teeth--or gums, if you prefer--of the Hawks' defense with nearly as much ease so long as Hinrich checks him.
But given his impressive postseason resume, and his track record of heating up this time of year anyway, Orlando can still rely on Nelson to score in the postseason. If he's tentative--if he's not turning the corner sharply off those Howard screens, if he's net getting all the way to the baseline on his drives so as to force Atlanta's help defenders to react--Orlando's in worse shape against Atlanta than we might have imagined.
It's worth noting that Nelson appeared in just two of Orlando's four games against the Hawks this season, and just one since Hinrich came aboard in a trade with the Washington Wizards; he shot 9-of-17 for a team-best 20 points in that contest. He missed the other two games due to a sprained ankle and a stomach virus. In short, we've yet to really see if Nelson can make a difference against a Hawks team with Jason Collins, not Al Horford, anchoring the defense at center.
We'll know more Saturday night, when this playoff series opens. But what we suspect for now is that Nelson will continue his torrid postseason play. He is, as ever, the difference between Orlando being a good team and a great one.