Since mid-February of the 2005-06 season, the Orlando Magic have regarded Jameer Nelson as their first-string point guard. He started every game unless an injury plagued him. And if a game was close, and if Nelson didn't have foul trouble, the Magic relied on him to guide their offense late in the fourth quarter.
That changed Saturday.
Knotted in a winnable game against the Dallas Mavericks, coach Jacque Vaughn subbed Nelson out midway through the third quarter and didn't put him back in the game, choosing instead to have rookie Victor Oladipo run the offense even though Oladipo struggled with turnovers all game long.
- Pictures: Orlando Magic vs. Dallas Mavericks
- Magic are embracing opportunity to play Oladipo in late-game situations
- Solomon Jones returns, but Kyle O'Quinn is sidelined by sprained ankle
- Behind the Scenes: 2013 Orlando Magic Media Day
- Portraits: 2013 Orlando Magic Media Day
- Watch: The latest Orlando Magic videos
- Pro Basketball
- Orlando Magic
See more topics »
The Magic lost to the Mavericks 108-100 at Amway Center.
"He was not hurt," Vaughn said of Nelson. "[It was] just more so a coaching decision. At the time, we were playing small and it gave us a chance to keep Vic in the game and experience a fourth quarter and try to get a comeback."
Oladipo committed nine of the Magic's 19 turnovers.
In the postgame locker room, Nelson politely told reporters he had to leave and couldn't answer questions. It was the first time in recent memory that Nelson had avoided the media after a game in which he wasn't hurt.
Nelson had played effectively. He'd scored 15 points on 6-of 11 shooting. He'd made two assists and committed just one turnover.
And, yet, as the Magic pulled within four points midway through the fourth period, he was cheering from the end of Orlando's bench instead of playing.
The Magic (4-6) stumbled without him.
Team officials like Oladipo, who was the second overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, and there's plenty to like. He can become an elite one-on-one defender, and he has the quickness and explosiveness to drive into the lane and draw fouls.
But Oladipo had never played point guard at any level until July.
The Magic know there will be growing pains while he acclimates to playing point guard — and if he has some rough nights along the way, well, perhaps the Magic will enhance their chances for the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery.
Oladipo finished with 10 points, four rebounds and six assists, but he also committed four turnovers in the final period.
"Now I've just got to perform in those circumstances," Oladipo said afterward.
"It was just a moment where I've got to learn. It was just a tough loss. It was real close in the game, and I've got to learn how to execute during those times and make sure my team was in the right place and teammates are in the right place and make sure we're doing everything we need to do on defense."
The Mavericks (6-4), playing the second game of a back-to-back, held the Magic to 20 points in the fourth quarter.
"We were aggressive in our coverage of Oladipo because we have a lot of respect for him," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "And that produced a few turnovers."
With the Magic trailing 91-87, Oladipo turned the ball over on consecutive Magic possessions — the first when he stepped out of bounds, the second when his pass was stolen by Shawn Marion.
"Victor's very competitive, and at this level, you can rely on your athletic ability, but there comes a point in time you have to start using some craftiness," Magic swingman Arron Afflalo said.
"And that comes with experience, so there's no way around it. Victor's not going to be a four-year point guard tomorrow, but he's got all the tools to be something great for us this season. He may have nights like this, but there also will be nights where he can dominate from that point guard spot."
Nelson entered this season in a precarious position.
He's in the second year of a three-year deal, but the final year of his contract is guaranteed only for $2 million.
His experience and his cap-friendly contract should put him in high demand for playoff teams that need an experienced point guard for the playoffs.
The trade deadline looms on Feb. 20, and Nelson has known all along that he will face uncertainty as mid-February approaches.
He also has known he could lose minutes to Oladipo.
It happened Saturday.
And it happened perhaps sooner than anyone had expected.