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Guarded optimism for Nelson, Magic

By Jarrod N. Rudolph
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2010

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MAITLAND, Fla. — Point guard play has been big for the Celtics and the Magic. Their All-Star point guards elevated their games en route to an Eastern Conference finals rematch.

Jameer Nelson has silenced his critics and created a fan base, and Rajon Rondo has taken over the floor for the Celtics.

With a return trip to the NBA Finals on the line, Nelson will try his best to put out Rondo’s fire and stop the budding star from leading his team to the championship.

“He’s a beast, man,’’ Vince Carter said of Rondo. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s controlling the game and running the team. He’s earned respect around the league.’’

The Magic understand how challenging it is to slow Rondo. The Magic had problems with Rondo during last year’s seven-game series (which Orlando won) and Rondo has improved, aided by a healthy Kevin Garnett, who was injured and didn’t play during the 2008-09 postseason.

“I think [Rondo] has a lot more time and experience under his belt,’’ Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. “He’s clearly become their leader. You watch him on the floor, he’s directing traffic and his confidence level is very high. I don’t think it’s any one or two things he’s doing differently, he’s just continued to get better and better.’’

The Magic, who haven’t played since last Monday, watched Rondo dominate Cavaliers guard Mo Williams. Although they were impressed, Nelson identified parts of Rondo’s game he needs to focus on to limit his impact.

“[Nelson] is going to have to work very, very had to keep him out of the paint, that’s the biggest thing,’’ Van Gundy said. “He’s also going to have to protect the ball on the offensive end. Stay very aggressive offensively, but he can’t get careless with the ball. Rondo is a guy with great hands and comes up with a lot of steals.’’

Van Gundy understands that keeping Rondo out of the paint is easier said than done.

“It would be great if we could keep him out of the paint; I haven’t seen anyone do it effectively,’’ Van Gundy said. “Obviously, we will work hard at that.’’

The difficulty of Nelson’s assignment will heavily depend on help from his teammates.

“It’s tough to keep any point guard in the NBA in front of you,’’ Nelson said. “That’s why you rely on your defensive principles and help. Nobody is out there playing that guy one-on-one. That’s why you have big guys out here like Dwight [Howard]. He’s defensive player of the year for a reason.’’

Making Rondo defend as hard as he attacks will be at the top of Nelson’s list of things to do.

“I just want to be aggressive,’’ Nelson said. “He’s aggressive on defense. I watched most of the Cleveland series and most of the guys he was guarding weren’t aggressive. I just want to stay on the attack and make him guard me as much as possible.’’

The Magic know they have to make Rondo work at both ends of the floor.

“I think he’s going to make Jameer work and Jameer has to make him work,’’ Carter said. “I think they have respect for each other from the battles they’ve had during the season.’’

The stakes are high and Nelson and the Magic are looking forward to the challenge.

“I think he’s done a great job leading his team and I think I’m doing a great job of doing the same thing,’’ Nelson said.

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