Magic 100, Heat 86

Vinnie Hudson sat on the floor at the edge of the court, chomping on chewing gum, studying Grant Hill like the science project that he is. A fast-paced game between the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat unfolded on the court, legs flying by, sneakers screeching, but Hudson's gaze remained steady. He watched Hill. It is what Hudson, a physical trainer from central Florida, is paid to do.

Hudson's job is to ensure that Hill gets to tomorrow, night after night. As the Magic wrapped up a convincing 100-86 victory, Hudson searched for problems in Hill's gait, his posture, his eyes. He looked for unsteadiness in the left ankle that has endured three operations in two years.

For the second straight game, Hudson saw no warning signals. He did not need to whisper into the ear of Magic Coach Doc Rivers. Hill played hard. He cut and drove and slithered through the lane. He stopped and popped, scoring 17 points in 25 minutes. He silenced the American Airlines Arena crowd of about 12,000.

In fact, the man with the scar on his leg and metal plate in his ankle, the object of Hudson's undivided attention, and the brunt of Orlando's frustration for two years, bore an uncanny -- and welcome -- resemblance to the old Grant Hill.

"It looked pretty good today," Rivers said. "In his mind, he's a long way away. In my mind, I'll take what he is doing right now and be very happy."

After the game, only his 20th in the last three seasons, Hill sat with both feet immersed in a bucket of ice, reflecting on a milestone that was at once so large and so small. The South Lakes High graduate had scored 18 points in 33 minutes on Tuesday, then almost replicated the performance tonight. He had handled back-to-back games. If this didn't qualify as being back, what did?

"Every day is a milestone," Hill said. "Every day I get up and feel good, every day after practice is a milestone. . . . It's getting there. I had some good stuff tonight. I feel the lateral quickness is all there. . . . It's now getting that lift back. I'm going to get a dunk one of these days."

Hill did not dunk, but he hit 7 of 10 field goals, grabbed five rebounds and made six assists. He danced in step with teammate Tracy McGrady, with whom he is expected to lead the team. McGrady scored 24 points, a handful off of alert passes from Hill.

"You could see," Heat Coach Pat Riley said, "the look on some of our players' faces with Hill and McGrady started to play."

Best of all, Hill did not have to flash a thumbs-down gesture to Hudson. He felt ready for more when the buzzer sounded. Removed for good at the end of the third quarter, Hill sat restlessly for the entire fourth as Magic subs nursed the Orlando's lead.

"I felt like I was in high school on the bench, leaning forward so [Rivers] would see me," Hill said, smiling. ". . . I want to go out there and play. I feel like I've sat on the bench too much."

That's precisely why Hudson was brought on board. To provide answers that Hill is too impartial to produce. The burly, balding physical therapist has worked with Hill daily for two years. Hill sought him out from the University of Central Florida, where he was program director of sports medicine. Given their close relationship, the Magic decided to hire Hudson, who tends to all of the players and obsesses over Hill.

"He'll run through a wall if no one keeps an eye on him," Hudson said before the game. "That becomes a real issue."

Hill's ankle problems surfaced just before the Magic gave him a seven-year, $93 million contract upon acquiring him in the summer of 2000. Hill thought he was back to full health last year, but after just 14 games he knew things weren't right. He went back to the operating table in December. Hudson went back to the drawing board.

In the months leading up to training camp, Hudson said, Hill has done almost all of his physical therapy in a pool. He has jogged in the water and swum laps. Every precaution has been taken. Rivers said Tuesday he felt a parent's pang of fear when he watched Hill leap over the first row of seats as he chased down an errant pass. He said tonight it was challenging to coach with two things on his mind: the status of the scoreboard, and the status of Hill's ankle.

By night's end, however, both looked in extremely good health.

"I'm so far past now how I feel," Hill said. "I'm just glad to be able to help us win. I look forward to doing that a lot more."

Orlando's Grant Hill, coming back from almost a two-year layoff, drives to the basket on Miami's Rasual Butler.