ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Grant Hill sprints down the floor and finishes a fast break with a dunk, he gives the Orlando Magic every reason to believe he can lead them on a big playoff run.
But when Hill's surgically repaired left ankle aches, he watches from the sideline.
And that's when the postseason seems a long way off: The Magic (9-7) have lost three of the four games in which Hill failed to play at least 10 minutes.
''As I said all along, there's going to be some rough spots here and there,'' Hill said.
This is the five-time All-Star forward's third year in Orlando, and the bright future heralded by his arrival dimmed long ago. During Hill's long absences brought on by three operations, the Magic have achieved little other than two first-round playoff exits.
Hill seems to have regained his excellence in many ways. He is averaging 16.1 points on 59.5 percent shooting, 6.1 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
But he recently sat out three games, most of another and the fourth quarter of a fifth. There's nothing his team can do other than hope the hurting stops soon. The pain never went away the last two years, when Hill missed all but 18 games.
''I'm thinking big picture,'' said Hill, who turned 30 during training camp. ''Hopefully, we can get to a point where we look back and forget about all this.''
Forget this? Not a chance. Not while the Magic must worry about Hill and the three screws holding together his ankle.
''Grant, right now, is in uncharted waters. We just don't know,'' Orlando coach Doc Rivers said. ''Maybe by midseason, he has no pain anymore, and he can play every game. But none of us know, the doctors don't know. This is new.''
According to the team, the ankle is not causing Hill's problems, although the joint remains swollen. Instead, his Achilles' tendon is inflamed because his body isn't used to the rigors of an NBA season, despite Rivers' limiting his minutes.
So far, Hill is averaging 27.3 minutes and has yet to top his uniform number -- 33.
The Magic knew Hill would feel pain during the comeback; the only question was where it would strike.
''We assumed it would be some part of his foot, his knee or his back,'' Rivers said. ''Because it's his foot, we're probably more cautious of it than anything else.''
That was evident during the Magic's 112-102 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night. Rivers thought Hill was favoring the ankle, so the coach yanked him for the night in the third quarter.
When Hill doesn't play, he's missed everywhere on the court. His versatility is the engine that drives the Magic -- he can fill every role from ball-handler to big man.
If Hill is out, defenders can key on superstar Tracy McGrady, who leads the NBA with a 32.2-point scoring average. Also, Rivers is forced to give more minutes to 34-year-old point guard Darrell Armstrong.
The contract that brought Hill from Detroit to Orlando -- $93 million over seven years -- is one bad break away from weighing down an organization that claimed a year ago to be losing $10 million annually. Fewer wins means fewer fans, which means smaller revenue.
And while Hill is as solid a citizen as they come in the NBA, his absence on the court diminished his influence in the locker room. As Rivers put it, nobody listens to a man on crutches.
What's more, the Magic have had to watch power forward Ben Wallace, traded to Detroit for Hill's rights, blossom into the league's top defender.
''I think it was a great trade for both teams,'' said Pistons general manager Joe Dumars, who also acquired point guard Chucky Atkins at the time.
The deal seemed lopsided in Orlando's favor when it was made. Now there's still time for Hill to make the Magic look smart.
There have been glimpses this season of how strong Orlando can be when Hill is on. During a five-game stretch, he averaged better than 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists, and the Magic scored 113.2 points a game.
And if it isn't Hill doing the damage, it's McGrady. After all, an opponent can double-team only one man.
''He's helping me out on the basketball court, where I have fresh legs in the fourth quarter to take over the game and have more energy to defend guys like Kobe (Bryant), Paul Pierce, Vince Carter,'' McGrady said. ''So he takes a lot of pressure off me.''
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