ORLANDO, Fla. – Mickael Pietrus` title as the “X-Factor” in the Eastern Conference finals didn`t come from all the X-rays the Orlando Magic forward has had this season.
But it easily could have.
Pietrus broke his right wrist, sprained it, tore a ligament in his right thumb, missed time with bruised ribs and is still playing with pain in the shooting hand that hasn`t healed – maybe never will.
“An injury doesn`t bother me, as long as I`m not dead,” Pietrus said Monday. “My philosophy is today you`re here, tomorrow you might not be.”
The Magic`s biggest offseason acquisition had been mostly a bust, a seldom-used reserve constantly out with injuries. The forward from the French island Guadeloupe who has incredible athleticism when healthy earned him the nickname “Air France,” but most just call him “M.P.”
Now he`s got new titles.
The sometimes soft-spoken, sometimes-eccentric Pietrus has been swatting LeBron James` shots and swishing enough 3-pointers to give Cleveland fits. The Cavaliers can`t figure out how to stop him.
“Their wild-card is Pietrus,” Cavs guard Mo Williams said. “He`s the X-Factor. It has been like that all three games.”
It`s a surprise few expected.
Pietrus had 16 points in Game 3, outscoring the entire Cavs reserves (eight points). He also grabbed six rebounds, had two steals and a block in his ninth double-digit scoring game of the playoffs.
After missing 28 games this season, Pietrus is averaging 13 points in the series, including a few highlight rejections on James that are rare for anyone. The Magic lead the Cavs 2-1, and Game 4 is Tuesday night in Orlando.
All that agony seems like a thing of the past.
“It was frustrating at the time,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said. “But at this point, it doesn`t matter. It`s good to have him back. I think he`s in a good rhythm. He`s looking more comfortable on the floor, and I think our guys are more comfortable with him. He`s playing spectacular in this series.”
It`s been a wacky career for Pietrus.
He played four professional seasons in France, starting at age 17, and spent the last five years playing for the Golden State Warriors. The last two got rocky, marked by frustration and disappointment.
He wanted more playing time. He wanted a contract extension. He even publicly asked to be traded. In the end, he signed with the Magic in hopes of being on a championship contender.
Then the injuries began.
Pietrus spent more time on the trainer`s table than in the lineup. He couldn`t shoot for weeks at a time because of pain. Mostly, he spent time at his central Florida home with his now 18-month-old son, Evan, his biggest motivation.
“Hopefully, I can sit back watching a video of these games and tell my son, â€˜You see that? You see those little shorts that I used to wear?`” Pietrus joked, his French accent rising in tone. “I just do it for my son. He`s one of the reasons that I`m playing great right now. I always told him that I`m going to bring him a championship ring.”
Even for the Magic, a team of young jokesters, Pietrus might still be considered an oddball.
His postgame wardrobes are very European-esque. He sometimes wears plaid pants and white outfits that draw snickers in the locker room where dogging teammates` attire is practically a hobby. He mutters French words sometimes just to irritate teammates. And although he`s not outspoken publicly, teammate Dwight Howard insists it`s all an act.
“He`s not soft-spoken,” Howard said. “He might not talk in front of the media. But Mike is the life of the party.”
He`s certainly been Orlando`s recent spark.
The shooting guard-small forward position has been a constant shuffle this season for the Magic. Rookie Courtney Lee finally earned the job permanently after Pietrus` injuries, and J.J. Redick has struggled with consistency. While no one has been able to stop James, Pietrus has been able to contain him more than anyone on Orlando.
Hence, the new nickname.
“Somebody has to be the X-Factor,” Pietrus said. “I don`t know if I`m the X-Factor. But it sounds nice.”