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Magic mull possible return of Nelson for finals

ALL-STAR point guard Jameer Nelson's injured right shoulder can take contact and he's been cleared by doctors to practice ahead of Orlando's NBA finals series against the Lakers.

Though that doesn't add up to Nelson being healthy enough to play, it does create a dilemma for the Magic's front office.

Nelson said yesterday that he has been playing full-court games, participating in contact drills and will practice with the Magic for the first time since tearing the labrum in his right shoulder Feb. 2 against the Dallas Mavericks.

"I'm a competitor," Nelson said. "No matter what the situation is, I always think I can go out there and get contact."

He had what was then called season-ending surgery Feb. 19. Nelson's rehabilitation was supposed to take at least another two months. Game 1 of the finals is Thursday night in Los Angeles.

Magic general manager Otis Smith and coach Stan Van Gundy expressed doubt yesterday whether Nelson could seriously return for the finals. Smith, who had repeatedly said Nelson will not play this season, said yesterday a quicker recovery and the chance of winning a championship has forced him to at least take a look at Nelson.

"It's still no in my mind," Smith said, adding that the team will explore the idea even if Nelson doesn't return for Game 1. "There's a smidgen of a chance he can play."

Orlando was 2-0 against the Lakers this season. Nelson was Orlando's leading scorer in both those games, averaging 27.5 points. He has been lobbying the Magic for a chance at playing since the playoffs began. With each round the team advances the idea - and the talk - of him returning has grown.

But Nelson would likely just be a shell of his All-Star form. He hasn't played in four months, and even he admits it will be difficult to convince the training staff and coaches that he isn't risking future damage.

"A miracle has to happen," Nelson said.

The Magic had the best record in the NBA in January behind Nelson, who averaged 16.7 points, 5.4 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 42 games.

But their title hopes took a major hit after he was injured. A trade-deadline deal that brought Rafer Alston from Houston largely saved the Magic's season, allowing the rotation to remain the same and Anthony Johnson to continue to provide solid play as Alston's backup.

The formula was enough to win only the franchise's second Eastern Conference championship, knocking off the defending champion Boston Celtics and eliminating MVP LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Van Gundy said disrupting that chemistry would be a concern.

"You always worry about that," Van Gundy said. "But that's just the decision that I'll have to make after a couple of days and he's practicing. ... But to me, four months is a long time to be out to have two practices and play in the NBA finals."

Nelson has been lauded by players and coaches during the playoffs for his leadership. He has been sitting between the coaching staff and players on the Magic bench, offering pointers during timeouts and acting like "a fifth or sixth assistant coach," Smith said.

But Smith worried from the beginning that Nelson would feel excluded. The two met before the playoffs to make sure Nelson wasn't tempted to rush back early.

"I just told him, 'Don't fall prey to the trap,'" Smith said. "The trap is, you want your team to do well, but you don't want them to do too well because you feel like you're not needed or missed."


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