- Chris Broussard, NBA analyst
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Conventional wisdom says there had to be a beef. An argument. Some bellyaching. A philosophical divide. Something.
Something had to happen between Stan Van Gundy and Rafer Alston during the second half of Game 4 Thursday night. Why else would the Orlando coach sit his starting point guard for the last 18 minutes, 28 seconds of the Magic's 99-91 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers?
Especially when Jameer Nelson, fresh off a serious shoulder injury, wasn't exactly flashing his All-Star form. Especially when six days earlier, Van Gundy had admitted he erred by playing Nelson the entire second quarter of Game 1. Especially when, for all intents and purposes, the Magic's quest for its first NBA championship was on the line.
But apparently, there was nothing, nada, no disagreement at all. Apparently, Van Gundy's coaching instincts just told him to stick with Nelson, who produced two points and three assists all night, for the entire fourth quarter and overtime.
"I thought we had a very, very bad third quarter, and then it wasn't so much one guy over the other,'' Van Gundy said. "It was just we had a unit in the fourth quarter that I thought was playing real well. And then you get down to the point where Rafer hasn't played in 10 or 12 minutes. I thought it would be hard to bring him back. Jameer wasn't doing a whole lot, but he also wasn't hurting us at all. The unit had played pretty well so that's why I stayed with it.''
Just like in Game 1, Van Gundy's move didn't cost the Magic the game, at least not directly. If it weren't for Derek Fisher's game-tying 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left in regulation, the Finals would be tied at two games apiece.
But the move was another example of how Van Gundy has mishandled his point guard situation throughout the series. After playing Nelson for 23 minutes in his first action in 4½ months in Game 1, and having 6-foot-10 forward Hedo Turkoglu run the point for the entire fourth quarter and overtime of Game 2, now he does this?
It wasn't like Alston wasn't playing well. After leading Orlando to victory in Game 3 with 20 points, the New York City playground legend again came out hot. With his swagger on max, he scored nine points in the first quarter.
Perhaps he was a bit overaggressive in the third, when he missed four of his five shots, but was Van Gundy pinning the fact that his team was outscored 30-14 for the quarter all on Alston? Dwight Howard was 1-for-4 with two turnovers in the quarter, and Rashard Lewis was 0-for-3.
The Magic held a 51-39 lead with under 10 minutes to go in the third quarter, but they fell victim to a 26-10 Lakers run that put them in a 65-61 hole with 1:28 left in the third. That's when Van Gundy subbed Nelson for Alston, who had assisted on the Magic's previous two baskets.
We never saw Alston again.
"I don't have an explanation,'' said Alston, who finished with 11 points on 5-for-13 shooting and 2 assists in 27 minutes. "I wasn't hurt. I was ready to go. I tried to stay ready. I sat there with about nine heat packs on me, but they all got cold. I was shocked, but that's the way the ball bounces.
"We were right there to win it, whether I was on the floor or not. We just didn't come through.''
Alston said there was nothing close to a heated exchange -- or any exchange period -- between he and Van Gundy. And another Magic player said Van Gundy walked down the bench midway through the fourth quarter and told Alston to stay ready.
Another source close to the team said Van Gundy told Alston after Game 3 that he was going to stick with him for the rest of the series, that the strange lineup shuffling that took place in Games 1 and 2 was over.
Alston wasn't the only player who was baffled.
"It was eye-popping,'' one of his teammates said. "That's the politically correct way to say it -- eye-popping.''
You would think that even Nelson was surprised at playing nearly 20 minutes straight, but he said he wasn't.
"I didn't realize it -- I was just out there playing,'' said Nelson, who admitted after the game that he's not 100 percent. "You can't be surprised with anything playing the game of basketball. I know coach just goes with his feelings, and that's what he wanted to do. He makes the decisions, so I was out there and played as hard as I could.''
Nelson, who was guarding Fisher on his game-tying 3-pointer, said he didn't close out on him strong enough.
"I should've pushed up a little more and got at the ball,'' he said. "But our philosophy at that point in time was not to foul.''
With 31 seconds left in overtime, Fisher drained another 3 to break a 91-91 tie and essentially seal the game. Nelson got caught double-teaming Kobe Bryant, who kicked the ball to Fisher, and as Kobe made the pass he nailed Nelson in the jaw with a hard elbow. Nelson complained to a referee but was rebuffed.
"I doubt that [Kobe] did it on purpose,'' Nelson said. "My ears are ringing right now. But the ref's not going to call that.''
Alston said that wasn't the only case of superstar treatment afforded Bryant.
"There were times he was out there cursing the refs out and they weren't calling technical fouls,'' Alston said of Kobe. "I would get ejected [for that], but they won't eject Kobe.''
But Van Gundy will bench Alston, that's for sure.
Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.
9hMichael C. Wright