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Christopher L. Gasper

Star emerges in the nick of time

By Christopher L. Gasper
Globe Staff / May 26, 2010

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You couldn’t miss it in the postgame press conference. Jameer Nelson’s watch was massive. A shimmering black band with a face so expansive — and no doubt expensive — that it looked like a flat-screen TV was attached to the Magic point guard’s wrist.

It was an apt accessory for Nelson to be sporting, though, because the little man’s performance in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals was big-time and a big reason the clock on the Magic’s season didn’t strike midnight.

For the first time in these playoffs, it was the other guys, and not the Celtics, who had the dynamic point guard who imposed his will on the game and made crucial plays to quarterback his team to victory. There was no YouTube-worthy, Dave Cowens-channeling dive from Nelson, just a pick-and-roll clinic and clutch shots.

Orlando’s adjustment to using staggered picks to free up Nelson left the Celtics staggered and relegated Rajon Rondo (muscle spasms) to an aching afterthought.

While Rondo was 3 of 10 from the field and had a meager 9 points and 8 assists, Nelson dropped 23 points (on 7-of-14 shooting) and had 9 assists in Orlando’s 96-92 win.

Delonte West’s former backcourt mate at Saint Joseph’s was both fortunate and fearless. In overtime, Nelson hit back-to-back 3-pointers — banking in the first one — to give the Magic a 6-point lead, a lead they never relinquished, even with Nelson watching the final seconds from the bench after fouling out.

Even Superman needs a sidekick, and it’s not a coincidence that the Magic got on the board in the Eastern Conference finals because they got an evening when Dwight Howard was on his game and his teammates didn’t disappear.

It only took four games. Rashard Lewis finally showed up, scoring 13 points — or 2 fewer than he scored in the first three games — and J.J. Redick was a pest as usual. But it was Nelson who put the broom back in Boston’s closet.

If Game 3 goes in the Rajon Rondo NBA scrapbook, then Game 4 was a momentum-turning memento for Nelson.

“I thought his play throughout the game was the reason we got a chance to win,’’ said Howard.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers wasn’t happy with his team’s execution or energy, but as a former point guard, he had to tip his cap to Nelson.

“Jameer Nelson, I thought, even though he only had 23 points, I thought he dominated the game, this entire game,’’ said Rivers. “I thought he went wherever he wanted to on the floor, and I thought he made big plays for them.’’

Celtics players Paul Pierce and Glen Davis said the Magic made an adjustment to get Nelson going, bringing the stocky guard off staggered picks, allowing him to pick up speed coming off the picks and choose his spots.

Pierce said defending Nelson off the double screen is going to be an adjustment for Game 5 tonight.

“We either fouled somebody or they scored on it every time down,’’ said Pierce. “It’s an adjustment we’re going to have to make in practice and see if we can do better.’’

The unassuming Nelson would never say it, but it had to irk him a little bit, all the chatter and proclamations about Rondo being the best point guard in the playoffs.

It was Nelson, and not Rondo, who came into this series averaging more than 20 points per game.

It was Nelson, not Rondo, who had led his team to two consecutive sweeps. It is Nelson, not Rondo, who is a captain on the defending Eastern Conference champions.

They’ve both made one All-Star Game — Nelson in 2009 and Rondo this season.

This is a point guard matchup, not a mismatch.

Monday night, Rondo wasn’t even the best point guard in his own building — blame it on the Sports Illustrated cover jinx — and the Celtics need to make this a one-time occurrence or they could be making more than one trip to the Magic Kingdom.

For the first time this postseason, Rondo has a legitimate challenger. It will be interesting to see how he responds in Game 5. In the past, such point guard duels have brought out Rondo’s best — think his head-to-head with Derrick Rose in last season’s playoffs — and the Celtics should hope that’s the case now, because Nelson won’t back down.

When the game’s gifted young point guards are compared and debated, it’s rare that you ever hear Nelson’s name. It’s always Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rondo, Russell Westbrook, and Rose. Even rookies Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry get their due before Nelson.

But while all of those players, except Rondo, are sitting at home watching on TV, the overlooked Orlando point man put his game into overdrive and sent this series into extra time.

Point guard play could decide this series, which suddenly feels closer than 3-1 with the Magic heading home for Game 5 and making bold statements.

Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, with all the subtly of a neon sign, talked about how somebody at some point is going to be down, 3-0, and win a series, and Redick, in the ultimate indignity to Boston sports fans, referenced the 2004 Red Sox as an inspiration for Orlando.

“You never know what can happen,’’ said Redick. “Maybe we will be like the Red Sox and come back against the Yankees. You never know.’’

The only thing missing was Nelson, who is from Chester, Pa., making like Rasheed Wallace and plopping on a Flyers cap.

The Celtics had better watch it because Nelson, like his gaudy timepiece, made a statement.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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