Time to back up his word

Originally Published: May 12, 2008
By John Denton | Special to ESPN.com

Jameer NelsonGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesOrlando's point guard remains confident as his team heads into the biggest game of the season.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Considering his history, you didn't really expect pint-sized point guard Jameer Nelson to back down from his Game 5 guarantee for the Orlando Magic to beat the Detroit Pistons, did you?

Nelson has spent a lifetime accomplishing feats few ever thought possible. He navigated his way through the troubled streets of Chester, Pa. Not even 6-foot tall, he was too short and played for a school too small to ever make it in the NBA.

And in the past year alone, he's had to fight through his roughest stretch in his life after losing his father, Floyd "Pete" Nelson, following a bizarre drowning death in the Delaware River.

Yet, there Nelson stood unflinchingly on Monday, a co-captain for the Magic, explaining exactly why he feels his upstart Orlando team is every bit the equal of the playoff-hardened Pistons even though it trails 3-1 in the series.

The Magic suffered an otherwise crushing defeat on Saturday, falling 90-89 in part because Nelson missed a last-minute free throw. He then said the Magic would rebound and win Tuesday's Game 5, and he backed up those comments again on Monday before Orlando headed for suburban Detroit.

"I've heard from people that I guaranteed a win, but what am I supposed to do -- guarantee a loss? We've got to win the game," Nelson said confidently. "We have the confidence that we can do it. I believe it.

"It's not that I'm saying it because that's what we have to do, I believe in this team. I'm not saying it to be arrogant or cocky or anything like that, but we know we have to win, so let's go win."

In many ways, these playoffs have been a sign of tremendous growth for Nelson, the fourth-year pro. Some in Orlando wondered if the Magic could ever go deep in the playoffs behind Nelson, who was shredded last spring by Detroit's Chauncey Billups in a lopsided sweep. And more than a few eyebrows raised when Orlando gave Nelson a five-year, $35 million contract extension a day before the regular season started.

But Nelson has finally showed signs of living up to his promise this postseason. He dominated first-round play against the Toronto tandem of T.J. Ford and Jose Calderon and has more than held his own against Billups, who went down with a hamstring injury.

Nelson's guarantee in no way rankled his teammates because he is in so many ways the soul of this team. Dwight Howard, Nelson's best friend, is the heart, but Nelson is the voice the team follows. And that's why while some questioned the audacity of guaranteeing a win against the veteran Pistons, Nelson's teammates rushed to his defense.

"[What Nelson said is] what we have to hear from everybody," Howard insisted. "We've got to believe. It's not going to happen unless we believe it. Our mind-set is to go up there and come back with a win and I think everybody believes it now."

Even Tayshaun Prince, the Game 4 hero who hit a floater with eight seconds remaining for the winning points, said he admired Nelson's refusal to go away quietly.

Said Prince: "He doesn't have anything to lose saying that. One thing he's probably trying to do is spark his club."

That he is, because Nelson feels the Magic could as easily be up 3-1 as they are down 3-1. A controversial shot by Billups at the end of the third quarter helped doom the Magic in Game 2. And Orlando let a golden opportunity slip through its hands in Game 4, when it had the Pistons down 15 points in the second half and again down one in the final 10 seconds.

The mood around the Magic's camp on Monday was a happy, hopeful one, and Nelson's overflowing confidence might have had something to do with it. He feels the Magic have a good shot of winning Tuesday, and then anything is possible once the series returns to Orlando.

"We're upbeat. There's nobody around here hanging their heads or moping around," he said. "We're excited to play and we're looking at it as an opportunity to get a win.

"We still believe in ourselves and still believe we can win the series. We're down 3-1 and it's a little bit of a hole, but it's nothing we can't get ourselves out of."

Nelson, ever the fighter, knows a thing or two about that.

John Denton is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today.