Orlando is evaluating All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson for a possible return to the Magic lineup for the NBA Finals that begin Thursday night in Los Angeles.

Magic spokesman Joel Glass said yesterday that Nelson's rehabilitation from a shoulder injury is ahead of schedule but that his status remains uncertain.

Nelson has been out since early February with what had been called a season-ending shoulder tear.

Magic president Bob Vander Weide told the Orlando Sentinel after Saturday's win over Cleveland that he wanted Nelson to take another MRI and consult with doctors for a possible comeback.

Nelson has been working out and has said he has full range of motion. But Magic general manager Otis Smith has repeatedly said there is no way Nelson could return this season.

Meanwhile, the Magic have survived a lot in the playoffs to reach the NBA Finals.

The Magic knocked off the defending champion Boston Celtics after falling behind in the series, 3-2. They eliminated LeBron James and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in Saturday's sixth game of the Eastern Conference finals, and now Orlando is back in the Finals for the first time since 1995.

"You can look at everybody in the locker room's eyes as well as coach and tell that we are happy about getting to the Finals, but we are not tremendously happy enough yet," forward Rashard Lewis said. "We like winning that silver basketball [as conference champions], but I think the gold basketball will be a little better than that silver one."

Orlando's only other Finals appearance ended swiftly, getting swept by the Houston Rockets. But after Shaquille O'Neal bolted for the Lakers in the summer of '96, the franchise collapsed, hitting bottom in the 2003-04 season. But the No. 1 pick brought them another Superman, Dwight Howard, whose 40 points and 14 rebounds dominated the Game 6 win over Cleveland.

"We've been the underdog all year," forward Tony Battie said. "We'll continue to be the underdog. That's the way we like it." *