Lindsey Hunter tried. Man, he tried everything. He bumped him. He thumped him. He put a hand in his face, he put a hand near the ball. He pressured him and harassed him and breathed on him and forced him into the air in an awkward, falling-back fashion, the way a man is forced off a cliff.

And it didn’t matter.

Tim Hardaway threw the ball up anyhow, as if trying to get rid of a grenade. It rainbowed high, then swished through the net. Hunter dropped his hands and turned to his bench with squinted eyes and an angry half-laugh, an expression that said, “You gotta be kidding me!”

Twenty eight points? Sixteen assists? Knife-like three- pointers? Hardaway wasn’t kidding.

And the worst part was, Hunter had seen it all before.

“Oh yeah,” he said later, in the locker room, after the Pistons’ rare home loss, 108-99 to the Miami Heat. “Tim and I go back a few years. We have the same agent. We’ve been friends for a while. I’ve seen him shoot like that on the playgrounds in Chicago when we play pickup ball.”

Down the hall, Hardaway was getting dressed. Someone asked him about Hunter.

“Lindsey?” he said, smiling. “That’s my boy.”

Twenty-eight points? Is that how you treat your boy?

“Yep,” he said.

He grinned.

“It is when he’s on the court against me.”

Mutual respect

No such thing as friendship. Never mind that Hunter and Hardaway had spent many nights on the phone a few years ago, encouraging each other, telling each other to stay strong, to keep with it. Hardaway had been injured and unhappy in Golden State. Hunter, the younger of the two, was unhappy riding the bench in Detroit.

They were both guards, out of small colleges, both believing they could be so much better.

And now they are. Hardaway is one of the premier point guards in the NBA. And few players have made as dramatic a leap in a single season as Hunter has between this year and last.

“I’m glad to see Lindsey come into his own,” Hardaway said, and he pulled on his pants and reached for his shoes. “I always knew he could shoot. But now he’s going to the hole as well.”

Oh, yes. Make no mistake. Hunter had a fine game against the man he calls
“my mentor.” He pulled up and swished some important three-point baskets — including an arching 24-footer that brought the crowd to its feet and the Pistons within 93-87.

Hunter also drove the lane often, switching to his left hand for a scoop shot, hanging and banking the ball in as he fell over two bodies.

There were even a few moves that left Hardaway shaking his head, including the ball that Lindsey picked away like a chain-snatcher, racing in the other direction, laying it in.

“I never should have let him steal that one,” Hardaway said, shaking his head. “I’m gonna hear about that all summer in Chicago.”

Small battles important

Of course, Hardaway will have a few things to brag about himself. The Heat has now beaten the Pistons twice — and Tuesday night they did it without Alonzo Mourning. In the race to stack up second behind Chicago on the Eastern Conference totem pole — and therefore avoid playing the Bulls in the playoffs until the conference finals — the Heat has the psychological edge.

But small battles often matter as much as big ones. And while the Pistons were defeated Tuesday, Hunter accounted nicely for himself against one of the best in the league, just missing Hardaway’s point total (he had 26, Hardaway 28) and three- point tally (Hunter’s three to Hardaway’s four).

“Can we now say Lindsey Hunter and Tim Hardaway in the same sentence?” Lindsey was asked.

“Can you?” he said, grinning.

Well, he’s certainly getting there. Hunter is playing aggressive offense and sticky defense. Never mind the points Hardaway laid on him. Flypaper would have had a tough time sticking to the guy Tuesday night.

“You saw those shots, Tim was unconscious,” Doug Collins said. “Sometimes you just have to say you played good, but the other guy played great.”

True enough. But just as important as who played better was the fact that they played together, that Hunter has reached the level where you can hold his nights on one hand and Hardaway’s nights in another and expect them to weigh roughly the same.

That’s a big step.

“Is he out there?” Hunter asked, as he emerged from the locker room.

Yes, he was told. And Lindsey smiled, grabbed his bag and went to look for Hardaway, to hear some advice, to measure himself. Maybe one night, he goes as the top dog. Look at how far he’s come already.

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