Rafer Alston helped guide the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals, then helped them take a lead after the first quarter of Game 1.

Then he sat, for a long time - way too long.

By the time Alston got back in the game, his rhythm was gone, and so was Orlando's lead. He never recovered and neither did the Magic, whose strong start quickly turned into a 100-75 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yesterday, Alston acknowledged the difficulty of sitting the entire second quarter while Jameer Nelson played all 12 minutes - a decision Stan Van Gundy admitted was a mistake - in his return from a shoulder injury.

"It was odd. I mean, I think everyone can see that. That's unusual to start the game and then you don't even touch the court in the second quarter," Alston said.

"But there's no pouting, there's no getting mad, there's going to be no coach and Alston meeting about it. I'm going to go out here and get ready for Game 2 and prepare myself like I have been all playoffs."

Alston scored four points on 2-of-4 shooting in the first quarter as the Magic opened a 24-22 lead. Nelson entered to start the second and provided a quick spark as Orlando pushed the advantage to five early in the period. But he and the Magic faded late in the half, and the Lakers surged ahead and were up by 10 at the break.

"The mistake I made was leaving him in too long. We've got to give Jameer shorter stints," Van Gundy said. "I may have overplayed him and he got tired.

"As far as Rafer, having that affect his play in the second half, that's up to him. If I'm looking from the outside, that sounds like an excuse to me." Not so, Alston said.

"I'll give you a good excuse. I sat 12 minutes real-game time, I sat about 30 minutes real-life time. So there's an excuse," Alston said while laughing.

Nelson struggled - the whole Magic team did while shooting 30 percent from the field - but said he felt good yesterday after playing 23 minutes in his first game in 4 months. The point-guard time was split almost evenly, with Alston playing about a minute more. Anthony Johnson, who had been the backup, didn't play at all.

Nelson expected the lineup to remain the same, but didn't know what the rotation would look like in Game 2 tomorrow night.

"No matter what the situation is, I know myself and Rafer will go out there and play as hard as we can for as long as we're given," Nelson said.

Alston vowed to figure out how to make it work.

"It's probably not an easy position for Stan to be in, as well as a player to be in," Alston said. "Whatever minutes you're given, you're going to have to go out there and do your job, and that's what I have to do."

Noteworthy

* The Raptors have hired former Memphis Grizzlies coach Marc Iavaroni as an assistant to Jay Triano. Iavaroni played for the 76ers during his first two seasons, including the 1982-83 championship team.

* Charlotte Bobcats coach Larry Brown would be "nervous" if an ownership change stripped Michael Jordan of his role running the team's basketball operations.

* Randy Smith, a blindingly fast All-Star with the Buffalo Braves in the 1970s who once held the NBA record for consecutive games played, died yesterday while working out on a treadmill. He was 60. *