FROM LONGSHOT TO LONG SHOTS,HE GROWS INTO REAL PRO

The beauty of the long-distance jumper is the delicious anticipation while the ball hangs in the air. That frozen moment when all eyes are up there with it. The Pistons live in that moment. They win or lose in that moment. When their long shots are off, it’s a longshot for a Detroit victory.

But when those shots are on and the crowd is roaring and the players can feel the tingle in their fingertips. . . .

Well, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

Lindsey Hunter was a beautiful thing to watch Tuesday night. From one corner, from the other corner. From the top of the key. He ran to his spots and he waited for the dish and he fired away. All eyes skyward. Up . . . and .
. . down . . . and . . . through! After a while, even the crowd got into his rhythm, anticipating the pass, standing when he got it, inhaling when he let it go, exhaling as it went through.

For one stretch in the second quarter — as good a five minutes as this team can play — Hunter hit four straight shots, three of them from at least 24 feet out. They arched so high, you could have done your taxes while you waited. But they fell sure and true.

Hunter’s blitz — 13 points in that quarter alone — helped the Pistons to a cushion they would never relinquish, although they came close. In fact, in the end, fourth quarter, when the Hawks closed the lead to one point and fans were biting their fingernails, Hunter took the ball and bombed away from way outside.

It wiggled through the net. The crowd exploded.

The Pistons were never in that much danger again.

“Could you have imagined taking that big a shot a year ago?” someone asked Hunter, after the Pistons moved within one win of advancing to the playoffs’ second round with a 99-91 victory over Atlanta.

“Could I have imagined taking it?” he said, laughing. “Could you have imagined me taking it?”

The old college try

Probably not. Which only goes to show you how much Hunter has grown, right before our eyes.

Remember that this kid was drafted as a replacement for Isiah Thomas. Only Isiah was still here. Talk about a shadow! And by the time Thomas left, the team was a mess, and Hunter had been branded a disappointment. In cases like that, it often takes a change of cities for a player to blossom.

Hunter never moved. His game improved under coach Doug Collins. His confidence grew. And when Allan Houston left for the money of New York, everyone saw the Pistons as doomed.

Hunter saw opportunity.

He began shooting without looking over his shoulder. He began using his explosive quickness to take men to the hole. He came from the shadows of Thomas and Houston and suddenly, there he was, on a night like Tuesday, hitting the big jumper to extend the lead to four points, hitting the big jumper to move it to eight, stealing the ball from Steve Smith and going the length of the court for a lay-up over the bigger man, a 10- point lead.

And finally, with the Hawks down to their last gasp, it was Hunter grabbing a long rebound — the shortest guy on the court! — and racing the other way, fans rising as he passed, as if his breeze were lifting them.

He banked it off the glass, and the Pistons were home free.

“I wish every night was like this,” Hunter said afterward, a towel wrapped around his body. “I remember having nights like this in college, where the crowd got louder every time I shot. It’s great.”

“Was this the kind of night you dreamt about when you got drafted into the NBA?” he was asked.

“It was fun,” he said. Then he smiled widely. “It was real fun.”

‘It’s courage,’ coach says

For the record, Hunter finished with 26 points, five rebounds, three assists and — get this — one turnover.

Just as important, he continued his head game with Mookie Blaylock, who has been reduced to a mere mortal the last two games, thanks mostly to Hunter’s defense.

Not that Hunter was doing this alone. Without Grant Hill driving and dishing, Lindsey doesn’t get half his shots. Without Terry Mills throwing in those leaning-tower jumpers, the Pistons don’t win.

But on a team with rebounding as weak as this one — Dikembe Mutombo had 21 boards by himself Tuesday, which equaled the Pistons’ total — you need men who can sink the outside shots when they count. Who can make a timely steal. Who can poke a ball away. Draw a foul. Mess up an opposing guard. Do all the little things to make up for the missing bulk.

Hunter did all that.

“I am so proud of him,” Collins said after the game. “He made the critical plays at the critical times, like that steal, or when he hit that really big shot. He’s taken on a major challenge in Blaylock, and he’s handled it. He’s been sensational.

“When you see the look he had in his eyes tonight . . . it’s courage. He’s playing with courage. He’s growing up in the playoffs.”

We might need to correct that. He’s grown. He may have been drafted into a shadow, but has emerged to cast his own now, fast and sure and firing away from the corners, from the key. How about this? If the Pistons get their first playoff series victory in six years, a smiling guard may help lead them.

Sound familiar?

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