It could have been luck.

It's Friday night at Oakland Coliseum Arena, and Golden State guard Tim Hardaway is barreling into the lane with two Jazz players squeezing him like a marshmallow. But Hardaway swings his right arm out, appearing ready to throw a pass, then suddenly sweeps it underneath a defender's arm in the same motion, scooping the shot into the basket.Lucky?

Long ago people stopped chalking up Hardaway's climb in the NBA to luck. Only a second-year player, he is already being named along with the best point guards in the league. "You see a shot like that from a regular player and you say he's lucky," says one Jazz player. "But the great players, you know it isn't luck. With them, it's a great shot."

For the second time in a week, the Jazz will get an up-close and personal look at Hardaway when the teams meet, Wednesday at the Salt Palace (7:30). Last Friday, Utah claimed a surprise win over the Warriors in Oakland.

Hardaway's climb to prominence began inauspiciously. The 6-foot point guard from UTEP was picked 14th in the 1989 draft, but only the fourth point guard. Many Golden State fans were dismayed at the selection of the little-known player. He had been a dominant force in the WAC, but it wasn't a league brimming with great guards. Considering his size, conventional logic said he would have a hard time surviving in the the NBA.

Hardaway, however, had no such misgivings. The Chicago native spent college summers playing in pickup games with some of the brightest stars on the circuit: Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Doc Rivers, Kevin Duckworth. "I held my own with them," says Hardaway.

Hardaway says he looked at Spud Webb, Muggsy Bogues and John Stockton - all superb, small point guards - and knew he could play in the same league.

"I knew I could come out here and play. If they'd give me a shot, I knew I could play with anybody," says Hardaway. "I thought at first I'd be coming off the bench and develop slowly, but Coach (Don Nelson) started putting me in the starting rotation at the end of last year. It just took off from there."

In only his second pro season, Hardaway was named to the West All-Star team. Averaging 24 points and almost 10 assists a game, he joined a dazzling group of point guards that included Magic Johnson, Stockton, Thomas, Kevin Johnson and Terry Porter. Hardaway finished the All-Star game scoring five points and collecting four assists and three rebounds.

Hardaway has never been prone to back down, no matter how impressive the competition. At UTEP he constantly beckoned teammates to keep the ball in his hands. The results were two WAC regular-season titles and three WAC Tournament championships while he was there. In the 1988 Chicago Pro-Am League, Hardaway averaged 40 points a game, beating out Thomas, Terry Cummings and Craig Hodges for MVP honors.

"He was inch-for-inch on me all over the court," recalls Pistons' All-Star Thomas. "Now remember, this was a summer league. The younger guys usually have respect for the pros. But Tim never let up."

As recently as a week ago, Hardaway was still showing defiance to his critics. After being goaded by Minnesota Coach Bill Musselman in January that he couldn't shoot outside, Hardaway responded last week by burying two three-pointers in the final 1:18 to give the Warriors a 108-105 win over the Timberwolves.

Respect isn't something Hardaway has to struggle for anymore, though. In one January week he scored 35 against New Jersey, 37 the next night in the Warriors' first win in Boston in 13 years, 40 two nights later against Philadelphia, and totaled 18 points and 13 assists in a win over Minnesota. He was named NBA Player of the Week.

Seventy-Sixers forward Charles Barkley was quoted saying, "Tim Hardaway can't be stopped." Lakers' guard Magic Johnson described a Hardaway crossover dribble in the Oakland Tribune this way: "It's bang, bang and you're dead. I love it; I love it!"

Reserve forward Jim Petersen told the San Francisco Chronicle, "We're seeing everybody gunning for him. The media doesn't know it and the fans don't know it, but the NBA knows it. He's the new sheriff."

What Hardaway undoubtedly knows is that very soon his $600,000 contract will as obsolete as the Nehru jacket. However, he remains low-key about his future. "I just want to keep playing hard and being consistent and doing the job," he says. "I just want to go out and get the W's."

GAME NOTES: Utah hasn't lost a regular-season game to Golden State in the Salt Palace since 1986 . . . Chances are good that Jazz guard Jeff Malone will be back following a two-game hiatus, due to a back injury. He went through a full practice with the Jazz on Tuesday. Malone has only played 11/2 games in the past 11 . . . Teammate Thurl Bailey didn't practice on Tuesday, due to a slight hamstring pull.