Before Rafer Alston left Houston, he had a message for his Rockets teammate and former Orlando Magic star Tracy McGrady.

"I told T-Mac that I was going to take his jersey," Alston said. "And I'm going to call Penny (Hardaway) and tell him I'm dusting it off, too."

If nothing else, a new No. 1 has given Orlando back its swagger.

Rejuvenated under their new starting point guard, the Southeast-division leading Magic (41-14) have returned to their fast-pace, pick-and-roll style. Orlando has renewed confidence and is once again believing it can contend for an NBA championship for the first time since All-Star Jameer Nelson was lost to injury.

"Everybody's a little bit more motivated now and we've got to keep it up," center Dwight Howard said. "We still have a chance to win a title, but everybody's got to pick it up. It starts with the point guard and with the man in the middle."

After Nelson suffered a season-ending tear in his right shoulder Feb. 2, Orlando's stellar season appeared to be slipping.

The Magic traded for point guard Tyronn Lue. They made 34-year-old Anthony Johnson the full-time starter. They even tried converting 6-foot-10 forward Hedo Turkoglu and rookie shooting guard Courtney Lee into makeshift point guards.

None worked.

Orlando went 3-3 over that span before trading for Alston, acquired from Houston on Friday. His trade has taken the ballhandling responsibilities off Orlando's free-shooting perimeter players, allowing everyone to get back into their normal rotation.

"I'm not going to be able to play 35-40 minutes night in and night out at the level I want," said Johnson, who has returned to his reserve point guard role. "What Rafer does is allow everyone to get back into their flow."

Trading for Alston also signaled that the Magic _ who began Monday third in the East, three games behind Cleveland for the conference's best record _ like their chances to contend this season.

Alston is due $5.25 million next season, the final year of his contract, and his acquisition may make it difficult for the team to re-sign Turkoglu should the small forward choose to opt out of the final year of his contract at season's end.

But the trade was more about not conceding this season

Alston is not expected to have the high-scoring output of Nelson, but he gives Orlando the speedy point guard it lacked in his absence. The Magic are again spreading the floor and are able to run the screen-and-roll halfcourt offense that had them looking like serious championship contenders in early January.

"He gets the ball up the floor so quickly, and now our other guys I think sometimes are in a jog and then they look up and the ball is coming right at them and they take off," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.

Alston has had no problem finding his groove.

Teammates already call him "Skip" after his nickname "Skip To My Lou," which was given to the former streetballer who made his fame on New York's storied blacktop courts. He even had a few players mimicking those former jaw-dropping crossovers during layup lines before the team's 122-99 win over Miami on Sunday.

Later, he had Orlando rolling in his first start.

Alston had 12 points and nine assists, and his get-the-ball-and-go style had the Heat struggling to keep pace. The Magic were going inside-out, with Howard scoring 32 points and the team going 17-for-32 from 3-point range.

The performance had even Dwyane Wade baffled after he scored a career-high 50 points in a lopsided loss.

"It's the hardest game you're going to play in the NBA," Wade said of facing the Magic. "You got to stop Dwight inside, close out on the 3-point shooters and then help back on Dwight again. It's the hardest 48 minutes you're going to play."

Alston will be asked to learn the rest on the job.

The Magic have little practice time this week, with the team playing at Chicago on Tuesday, at New York Wednesday and back home against Detroit on Friday night. But improvising is one thing the former streetballer knows best.

"It helps that I've played only one position in my life and that's point guard," Alston said. "So things come natural."

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