ANTONIO GONZALEZ

Associated Press Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. Rafer Alston knows he is perceived as the "weakest link" in the Orlando Magic's starting lineup.

He's the smallest. He's the oldest, and he's replacing an All-Star in injured point guard Jameer Nelson.

"I'm probably not the most consistent one out of all the bunch as far as making 3s," Alston admits.

He also knows anytime Orlando struggles, he's usually the first one blamed. After all, the Magic had the best record in the NBA in January with Nelson at the helm.

But it's Alston who's helped them survive time and advance in the playoffs.

Alston kept the Magic's championship hopes within reach when he was acquired from the Houston Rockets at the trade deadline. He did it again in the biggest spot yet, scoring a season-high 26 points in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals to give the Magic a commanding 3-1 series lead and help end any doubt that they can't win a title without Nelson.

"It has been a challenge to me all playoffs long," Alston said. "Philadelphia, their coach dared me to shoot it. I burned them in Game 6 at their place. Boston dared me to shoot it. I burned them in Game 7 at their place. Now Cleveland is daring me to shoot it."

And he's making them pay.

Reaching back to his days as a star on New York's blacktops, Alston was 10-for-17 shooting with six 3-pointers, burning the Cavs for slipping screens and double-teaming center Dwight Howard. The 32-year-old known best as "Skip to My Lou" for his razzle-dazzle crossovers again proved to be the Magic's missing piece.

"He wasn't Rafer Alston, he was the playground legend 'Skip to My Lou,'" Howard said of his teammate's performance. "When he plays like the playground legend, he's tough to guard."

The Magic might not even be here if it wasn't for Alston.

Orlando needed an experienced point guard after Nelson underwent season-ending surgery on the torn labrum in his right shoulder in early February. The Magic acquired Alston in a trade-deadline deal from the Rockets by sending Brian Cook and a first-round pick to Memphis, which sent Kyle Lowry to Houston. The Grizzlies also acquired Mike Wilks in the deal.

Alston finally got the ultimate respect in Game 4.

MVP LeBron James was matched up on him for much of the second half, harassing Alston and trying to take away his shot. It didn't work.

On one play in the third quarter, Alston banked a 3-pointer just over the fingertips of a charging James. Even Alston put on a cheek-to-cheek smile and gave an it-is-my-night-nod to James running down court.

"He made it a lot easier on our guys because he was making shots. Not only shots, but he was hitting a lot of 3-pointers for us," Magic forward Rashard Lewis said.

The playoffs have been a test for Alston.

He was in a slump for most of the first two rounds, his turnovers were up and his assists were down. Alston's frustration escalated against Boston when Eddie House made a 3-pointer over him and he slapped the Celtics guard in the back of the head, drawing a one-game suspension.

All that seems like history.

Game 5 is Thursday night in Cleveland, and the Magic are a win away from only their second NBA finals appearance and first since 1995. For Alston, it would be his first.

"We understand you have to win one more and it is not going to be easy," Alston said. "But for right now, I think we could taste it getting there."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.