How Rafer Alston Is Bringing Hope Back to Orlando

aSenior Analyst IFebruary 24, 2009

When Jameer Nelson ran to the locker room clutching his right shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic fans across the country collectively held their breath.

When it was announced that he would need season-ending surgery to repair the torn labrum, Magic fans feared for their season and analysts stated that Orlando was no longer a contender.

With Anthony Johnson as the team's only other point guard, it was an understatement to say that a move needed to be made. Shortly after, Tyronn Lue was acquired from the Milwaukee Bucks.

But in the following game, the Magic barely squeezed out an overtime win over the Charlotte Bobcats despite Dwight Howard contributing 45 points, 19 rebounds, and eight blocks. It was pretty clear that this team wouldn't be getting that type of production from Howard each night and a move had to be made.

One night later, the Magic played their worst game of the season, losing 117-85 to the New Orleans Hornets. Chris Paul abused Orlando's point guards and his 36 points and 10 assists were a big reason for the 32-point blowout. After seeing Johnson and Lue combine for nine points and three assists, GM Otis Smith started working the phones.

The next day, Magic fans waited to see if a move would be made. As the trade deadline came and passed, no trades involving the Magic were being reported. But 20 minutes after the deadline, ESPN broke the news of a three-team deal that sent Houston Rockets' point guard Rafer Alston to Orlando.

The next night, Alston was suited up for the Magic and making his debut against the team that Orlando had struggled against just a few nights before, the Bobcats.

A mixture of nerves and unfamiliarity led to a poor shooting night for Alston, but Magic fans saw what the guard was capable of. In 29 minutes, he dished out eight assists and had three steals in a 92-80 win in which Orlando led for most of the game.

They also noticed some changes to the team's offense. Rather than the slower, half-court tempo that the Magic had been playing with Nelson running the show, Alston looked to push the ball as often as possible.

He also knew his role within the offense, looking for the open man before pulling up. He was the distributor that focused on putting the ball into the hands of Orlando's many offensive weapons.

"Rashard (Lewis) can post on the block and step out and shoot the three," he said to "You know Dwight is a good lob catcher and you want to give him the ball deep in the lane. And the rest of the guys are great shooters. It's exciting."

During his post game interview, Alston continued to show his excitement saying, "To go to a contender, I had a smile from cheek to cheek, from ear to ear when they told me I was coming to Orlando."


When Nelson went down, so did the fans' hope in Orlando after the team's terrific start. And here is Alston still calling the Magic a contender? Just like the Magic's offense, expectations were starting to change.

"I think this trade puts Orlando ahead of Cleveland in the East," said one ESPN analyst.

While all of this sounded great, it was just one game and there were still questions to be answered.

Two nights later against the division rival Miami Heat, Alston started his first game as a member of the Magic and it didn't take long to see that he was ready to run this team.

In the first quarter, he had seven assists along with a pair of three-pointers that helped the Magic build an early lead that they wouldn't lose. Unlike Jameer Nelson, who has averaged 4.5 assists per game throughout the course of his career, Rafer could make the difficult pass that led to wide-open shots for his teammates.

Behind-the-back and over-the-shoulder passes set up shooters Hedo Turkoglu and Courtney Lee repeatedly during this stretch.

Alston would finish the game one assist shy of a double-double with 12 points and nine assists against his former team. For the first time in a long time, the Magic were starting a point guard who could rack up double-digit assists with ease and the team's confidence was rising.

"He definitely brought [our swagger] back," said All-Star forward Rashard Lewis. "We were trying to figure ourselves out after Jameer got hurt but I feel like Otis did a great job making that trade and now we're back."

Nelson was having the best season of his career before his injury, but he thrived because of his ability to score and familiarity with his teammates.

When you consider that Alston had been with his new team for just two-and-a-half days and he could count the number of Orlando's plays he knew one hand, it makes his impressive debut as a starter even more amazing.

Before acquiring Alston, the Magic had lost four of seven games since the Nelson injury, but things have improved under Rafer. The team has won its last two games by an average margin of 17 points and only trailed once in both games combined. The team is playing at a faster pace and there is a winning atmosphere at the Amway Arena once again.

"We're a contending team, and the point guard has to be rock solid out there," said Alston following the Miami game.

If these last two games are any indication, Alston is just the rock-solid point guard that Orlando needs and the Magic are indeed a contending team once more.