ORLANDO — Just when it was starting to stagger, the Magic came alive two months ago with a little playground swagger.
Score it as a season-saving assist for point guard Rafer Alston, one of the greatest streetball players to emerge from the courts of New York City — or any city, for that matter.
Now, as the NBA playoffs begin today, Orlando's torrid run to the Southeast Division title has given way to key injuries, inconsistent play and unexpected questions about how far it can go in the postseason.
The answer may lie in the hands of the one-time king of Big Apple asphalt, a man who quickly stabilized the Magic after arriving from Houston in a Feb. 19 trade.
"I don't know how ready we are," Alston, 32, said this week. "We have some days in-between here, and hopefully we can refocus."
It won't be easy if banged-up star forwards Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu aren't in top form Sunday against the 76ers in their opener. Then again, it didn't look promising for the Magic when playmaking point guard Jameer Nelson went down with a season-ending shoulder injury Feb. 2.
A trade for point guard Tyronn Lue failed to add the needed spark. Elevating Anthony Johnson to a starting role didn't work, nor did moving the 6-foot-10 Turkoglu or rookie shooting guard Courtney Lee to point guard.
After a frustrating 3-3 run, Alston was obtained in a trade-deadline deal. Presto. The Magic was back.
Behind Alston's confident ballhandling, Orlando went on a 16-4 tear and was on pace for the best regular-season finish in franchise history. But then came more injuries — tendinitis in Lewis' right knee and a sprained left ankle for Turkoglu — and it sputtered to 4-5 in April. Still, it enters the playoffs as the Eastern Conference's No. 3 seed at 59-23, the second-best record in franchise history.
Recent woes aside, the Magic has been thrilled with the addition of Alston. He has been a perfect fit, reuniting with his former Heat coach, Stan Van Gundy, and having the time of his life, at least since he left the playgrounds of New York City as a phenomenally talented teen from Queens.
"It's been great," Alston said after a recent workout. "Some things play in my favor. I played for Coach Van Gundy before, and I understand what he wants and what he likes in the scheme of things. And I'm coming from one point guard position to another, so my role is pretty much the same as what I played in Houston. I had to play alongside two big stars (Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming), and my role was to set the tone, run the show, get those guys the ball and be aggressive when need be and play some good defense."
That's what Alston has done in Orlando, playing alongside star center Dwight Howard and Lewis. But more than anything, Alston has allowed Magic starters to return to the roles they had before Nelson's injury.
"Jameer and Rafer are different players, but the key thing Rafer has done has put everybody else back in their comfort zones," Van Gundy said. "When Jameer got hurt, Turkoglu had to play at the backup point and do a lot more ballhandling. We didn't play quite the same way, so everybody's game was a bit different. Now we've been able to go back and play at the same offense, play at the same tempo."
Alston played 29 minutes his first game with the Magic, without a walkthrough, but immediately flashed the skills that have kept Orlando in gear. "He distributes the ball very well. He's a pass-first guy," Van Gundy said, "and he pushes the tempo very well.
Alston knows about tempo, and not just from the And1 Mixtape Tours — traveling basketball competitions and exhibitions sponsored by apparel manufacturer And1 — that highlighted his streetball prowess a decade ago.
Streetball is much like basketball but mostly played half-court. Alston learned how to control the pace of a game as a kid in tough New York neighborhoods.
"When you're a streetball player, it makes you more confident," he said. "It gives you a swagger, that you can go anywhere, any place and you can compete with the best out there. That's one thing growing up in New York City, playing on the playground circuit. People don't understand the things that are said to you, the threats that we have to endure when you go from Queens to Brooklyn, Brooklyn to Bronx, Bronx to Harlem.
"I'm from Queens, and they don't like it if a Queens guy comes and destroys them in Brooklyn."
The street game made him tough and hard to intimidate, traits that have surfaced in ways that have hurt and helped him.
Alston humiliated plenty of playground opponents with his dazzling shooting, passing and defensive skills. He earned the nickname "Skip to My Lou" for his habit of skipping downcourt while dribbling.
"I think what made me good was that any place, any borough, I didn't mind going in there and doing what I had to do to win a game and also put on a show," he said. "Then I developed a following. I guess everyone who was a Rafer Alston fan, I never let them down out there. When you play in the New York City playgrounds, you hear so much (about) this guy or that guy being so good. At a young age, I was that guy."
But though he was a showman on the court, Alston was often a no-show man at Benjamin N. Cardozo High. At home, he had no father figure to guide him, so the teen drifted, playing just 10 high school games his junior and senior years due to ineligibility. All the while, he studied the game on the street and off, and played nonstop.
"My eye was always on the prize, the NBA, and I was a student of the game," he said. "I played all day in the park and went home and watched basketball on TV. My mom would tape games for me. It was always in my heart to play at this level."
Alston's best move was to leave New York and move to California to attend junior college, where he improved his grades and escaped the distractions of the city. It allowed the fearless hotshot to mature and improve his game.
He helped Ventura College to a 37-1 record and the state title as a freshman and spent a year with coach Jerry Tarkanian at Fresno State, though Alston's temper landed him in trouble with his coaches and the law several times.
Alston, 6 foot 2, 171 pounds, received anger-management counseling and learned to walk away from possible trouble. He entered the NBA as a second-round pick by Milwaukee in 1998 and played three seasons. He then crisscrossed the league — Toronto in 2002-03, Miami with Van Gundy in 2003-04, a return to Toronto the next season, followed by three years (two with Van Gundy's brother Jeff) in Houston. In 10 seasons, Alston has more than 6,000 points (10.3 per game) and 3,000 assists (nearly five per game).
Along the way, Alston has had a few other run-ins, including an assault charge that was dismissed after he was traded to Orlando. But his ability and veteran leadership have been nothing but a hit with the Magic, with whom he's averaging 12 points and 5.1 assists.
"He's just done an excellent job on both ends of the floor," Howard said. "I'm glad he's here."
Teammates call him "Skip." And his playful personality has helped the Magic's chemistry.
"Rafer's a very upbeat guy, very enthusiastic about the game, loves to be in the gym, loves to be around other players," Van Gundy said. "Everybody likes him. And he makes things fun."
Alston wants to make basketball fun for New York City kids.
"I go back to the playgrounds every summer, but I not only go back, I sponsor and coach an AAU team," he said. "I go to all the boroughs and watch the games. I've noticed that kids aren't playing as much. There are iPods, PlayStations, Facebook, stupid Internet sites, so much that occupies their time.
"I feel it's my duty to go back and help, because a lot of these kids have God-given talent."
A legend from the courts of Queens is proof of that.