Nelson participated in a full team practice Tuesday for the first time since tearing the labrum in his right shoulder Feb. 2. While Nelson and coach Stan Van Gundy still said the point guard's status won't be determined until game day, players said Nelson looked "terrific" and expect him to be on the court against the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I expect to see him out there at some point in the series," backup point guard Anthony Johnson said.
Nelson 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, and healed or not, Nelson wants to play.
"I'm not saying I'm any tougher or stronger than anybody, but I've been known to do some amazing things sometimes," Nelson said Tuesday, again lobbying for playing time.
Magic general manager Otis Smith had repeatedly said Nelson will not play again this season. But he recanted his comments Monday and said 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. "There's a very smidgen of a chance he can play."
That "smidgen" seems to be growing.
Nelson has been playing full-court games and practicing in non-contact drills for the last two weeks. Tuesday, he participated in every drill.
Players said Nelson wasn't in his All-Star form, but even not completely healthy, he was better than most NBA point guards.
"He was terrific," Magic forward Mickael Pietrus said. "Hopefully, he will play and can help us win."
Starting point guard Rafer Alston expressed similar optimism.
"I was going to try to run him ragged out there, but I didn't want to cross him over," Alston said. "He did cross me over a couple times."
The Lakers are preparing as if Nelson will play -- and for good reason.
Orlando was 2-0 against Los Angeles this season. Nelson was Orlando's leading scorer in both those games, averaging 27.5 points.
And with the Lakers' troubles guarding point guards in the postseason, they're not taking any chances.
"He's a terrific player. He's really come on a lot in the last year as a player," Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "Someone's got to play that position and we have to match whatever happens there. He has the speed and intelligence to play that position very well for that team."
Nelson has been trying to convince 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 grows.
For the Lakers, Nelson is just one more offensive weapon they have to worry about.
"They add another scorer," Los Angeles' Kobe Bryant said. "They have a team full of them, but he is another player you're going to have to deal with on defense."
The Magic's title hopes seemingly took a major hit after Nelson was injured. A trade-deadline deal that brought Alston from Houston largely saved the Magic's season, allowing the rotation to remain the same and Johnson to continue to provide solid play as Alston's backup.
The Magic are hoping Nelson can only add to that success.
Van Gundy, perhaps trying to keep his coaching strategy a secret, again expressed doubt Tuesday whether Nelson could seriously return for the Finals. But he also said that even if Nelson doesn't play in Game 1, he could play later in the series.
"He was OK," Van Gundy said, shrugging his shoulders. "We'll have to wait and see."