- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2009

It has been a relatively overlooked element this NBA season, the meteroic ascent of the Orlando Magic, ever lost in the breathless buzz that envelops the Celtics, Lakers and LeBron James.

Part of it is understandable. The Magic lack the historical pedigree of the Celtics and Lakers and the one-man star power of James. And there was a sentiment, gradually fading, that perhaps their success was somehow not genuine.

After defeating the Raptors 113-90 on Sunday, the Magic hiked their record to 36-10 and continued their push to forge the best record in the Eastern Conference.

That development has come as a surprise to everyone but possibly coach Stan Van Gundy and the Magic, a solid enough team going into the season but expected to be a year or two away from elite status.

They have developed at an accelerated rate in part because of the emergence of point guard Jameer Nelson, the Saint Joseph’s product who always has pushed through the criticism of what he could not do.

He never could defend in the NBA because of his lack of height, generously listed at 6 feet. He never could lead a championship-contending team because of his shoot-first, pass-second proclivity. He never could be one of the leading point guards in the NBA because of his uncertain decision-making ability.

Nelson has heard all those doubts dating to his prep days in Chester, Pa. Those doubts contributed to Nelson landing at Saint Joseph’s instead of a big-name program in the Big East or ACC.

Those doubts persisted in his first four seasons with the Magic and became especially shrill after general manager Otis Smith granted him a five-year contract extension totaling $40 million before the start of last season.

But now, after earning his first All-Star berth last week in the midst of a career season, Nelson has put all the questions to rest.

Dwight Howard may be the foundation on which the Magic are built, but it is Nelson who orchestrates the offense, who must pick his scoring moments while addressing the needs of three primary scorers in Howard, Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu.

It is a tricky assignment that Nelson has mastered in impressive fashion this season. He is averaging a career-high 17.0 points and shooting a career-high 50.5 percent. His assist/turnover ratio is a steadying 2.71.

And his lack of height is tempered by the size around him: 6-foot-11 Howard, 6-10 Lewis, 6-10 Turkoglu and 6-6 Mickael Pietrus.

Not that Van Gundy is always satisfied with Nelson’s intensity on defense.

“I’m really happy with him,” Van Gundy said after the Magic’s victory in Toronto. “I try not to say that too often. He and I went at it again on the bench [on Sunday]. … He has had a hell of a year. He’s a big reason for our success right now.”

With Nelson pushing into the top tier of NBA point guards and the offseason acquisition of Pietrus, the Magic seemingly have few flaws.

They can extend the floor on offense like few other teams in the NBA. Nelson, Pietrus, Turkoglu and Lewis are all competent 3-point shooters. Turkoglu, who was thought to be a mere spot-up shooter during his days with the Kings and Spurs, has shown he can be an able playmaker as a dribble-penetrate kick-out artist.

The Magic are not a lock-down defensive team in the manner of the Cavaliers or the Celtics. But they do have efficient help defenders, starting with Howard, the NBA’s leading shot-blocker who erases a number of mistakes each game.

The inside presence of Howard also eases the absence of a genuine power forward, with both Turkoglu and Lewis having small-forward sensibilities.

The Magic have the fourth-best point differential in the NBA at plus-8.5. And they have shown they are impervious to the vagaries of the road. Their 18-6 record on the road is the best in the NBA.

They are not going away, not after 46 games, not unless there is a serious injury to an essential part.

They have the wherewithal to get in the way of the Celtics-Cavaliers postseason showdown that has been envisioned since the first month of the season.

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