Sports

Tim Hardaway Jr. Found A Home — And A Rhythm — In Dallas

Tim Hardaway Jr. had a few words for the Mavs Fans For Life — the loyal fan base of the Dallas Mavericks — after Tuesday night’s 127-121 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. 

“I want to tell the MFFLs I need to knock my free throws down. That’s my fault. I’ma get in the gym tomorrow. I got y’all,” he said with a laugh.

But he was serious. And the MFFLs knew it.

Hardaway’s eye toward improvement — a mere minutes after a stunning victory — shows the drive for excellence that lies within “Timmy.” It’s what has endeared him to fans in his second full season with the Mavericks. And it’s what has helped propel the Mavs to a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven first round series with the Clippers. To move past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in a decade, the Mavs had to win twice in L.A. And they did. 

Hardaway has been a huge piece of the Mavericks’ two postseason wins. In Game 2 on Tuesday, he finished with 28 points on 9-of-14 from the field and 6-of-8 from three along with five assists. He also hit a crucial 3-pointer with 1:03 left in the game, making it 123-116, then promptly let out a boisterous scream.

“It’s something you live for, man,” he said. “I mean, it’s easier said than done when you’re up a couple of points. But when you’re in that zone and you’re in that mindset and you’re playing against a team like that, those shots are very big and very key throughout the game.” 

The Mavs had their fourth-best shooting night in franchise postseason history on Tuesday after finishing 48-of-82 (.585) from the floor. Their 18 made 3-pointers were the second-most in franchise history in a regulation-length postseason game.

In addition to hitting six of those threes in Game 2, Hardaway also contributed to the Mavs’ victory in Saturday’s Game 1. He finished with 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field for his third career 20-point playoff game. His performance during this series even caught the attention of Clippers head coach Ty Lue, who specifically mentioned him after Game 2: “Hardaway is playing at a high level right now, so we got to do a good job with him coming out on Friday.”

Thanks to these two wins, the playoffs now shift to Dallas, beginning with tonight’s Game 3. The Mavs were tied for the fourth-best road record in the league this season at 21-15, but they managed only to match that win total at home. Hardaway hopes the team can protect its newly gained home-court advantage this weekend.

“Just being able to get two on the road, it’s great. But we know we’ve still got more work to be done and a little bit more clean-up on both ends of the floor. We’ve been doing a great job of winning on the road all year,” he said. “Once you’re out there competing and you got the fans there, you’re playing for something.” 

Hardaway was drafted out of Michigan by the New York Knicks with the 24th overall pick in 2013, and he started off strong in his pro career, finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year race as a first-team All-Rookie selection.

He was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, where he struggled early but found his game — and his penchant for 3-point shooting. In his second season in Atlanta, Hardaway averaged 14.5 points per game and shot 35.7 percent on 3-pointers, and the Hawks went to the playoffs. Following the 2016-17 season, the Hawks extended Hardaway a qualifying offer, making him a restricted free agent. 

In a plot twist, he received a four-year, $71 million offer sheet from the Knicks; the Hawks declined to match the offer, so Hardaway was reunited with the team that drafted him. 

Two years later, the Mavs traded for Kristaps Porziņģis from the Knicks, who included Hardaway, Trey Burke and Courtney Lee in the deal. It’s safe to say that upon his arrival, Hardaway was not considered the “prize get.” Maybe he would stay, maybe he wouldn’t. 

His signing wasn’t that big of a deal to MFFLs. Not yet.

After averaging 15.5 points in his first 19 games for the Mavericks, he was sidelined for the final 11 games with a lower leg stress fracture that required surgery. He rehabbed and returned to the team the following season, coming off the bench. 

On Nov. 20, 2019, Hardaway was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time that season.  As his potential as a scoring machine was on prominent display, his fanbase grew. On Dec. 8, 2019, he made nine 3-pointers in a 110-106 loss to the Sacramento Kings — then a career high for him — and he finished the regular season with 204 3-pointers made, the seventh-most in the NBA that year. 

Sensing he had finally found a home, he exercised his option at the end of the 2019-20 season to remain a Maverick. It paid off, as he averaged 20  points per game and shot over 60 percent from 3-point land in his first five starts. He remained in position the rest of the season, averaging 17 points per game and shooting 42 percent from three.

He had finally arrived. 

Hardaway began the 2020-21 season still starting and shooting lights out, averaging almost 17 points a game through the first 20 games of the year, although shooting a lower 39 percent from three. 

Then head coach Rick Carlisle began tinkering with his lineups. He moved Hardaway to an off-the-bench role in February, but the eighth-year vet wasn’t at all fazed. He was willing to do whatever the team needed — and his hot hand continued. 

“It’s coach’s decision,” Hardaway said earlier in the season. “You’ve got to be a pro, and I said it from day one, I’m here to help this team out any way I can.”  

Hardaway “couldn’t have been more open-minded to coming off the bench,” Carlisle said. “He said, ‘Coach, whatever you need, whatever we need right now. We need to bust out of this thing.’ He goes, ‘Whatever you need, I’m there.’” 

Teammate Dorian Finney-Smith said Hardaway has “been real professional” throughout the changes.

“He kept that same energy off the bench. He kept that same energy starting. I’m happy for him. Right now, he’s a flame-thrower. He’s on fire right now,” Finney-Smith said. “So we keep trying to give him the ball whenever he got an inch just so he can shoot himself cold — if he ever goes cold.”

“We like to say some people have a hot day or a hot week. Tim is having a hot decade. That’s what we like to say.”

Carlisle’s tinkering paid off. Off the bench, Hardaway averaged 15.1 points per game during the regular season and 38.5 percent from deep. And in a surprise to many, Hardaway came in fifth place in this year’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, right behind teammate Jalen Brunson; and all because — even though he would prefer to start — he didn’t mind a bench role.

“With Tim, the proof is in a sample size of well over a year,” Carlisle said. “When he was starting last year, he had a great flow. He started early this year, and we made the change to go to more of a defensive lineup and bring him off the bench because we were really struggling with defense.

“He was willing to do it. That’s one reason that I’m willing to make other changes in the lineup, when you have a guy like him who’s one of your top players willing to do it.”

No shooter is perfect. Some nights, Hardaway shoots lights out. Other nights, it’s as if he has a blindfold over his eyes. Such is the ebb and flow of a baller. 

But if an opponent is not careful, Hardaway can go off at any time.

Like in Miami earlier this month, when he finished with a game-high 36 points to lead the Mavs to a 127-113 victory over the Miami Heat, a victory that helped them move into fifth place in the Western Conference. It was a special game because Hardaway was playing in the arena where his father’s jersey hangs from the rafters — the No. 10 worn by Tim Hardaway Sr. as a member of the Heat from 1996 to 2001.

“I know it’s there forever,” Hardaway said. “Every time I go out on the floor, with that name up in the rafters, you have nothing else to do except go out there and compete and play your tail off. Just having that honor and that privilege to play under that jersey up there in the rafters, it’s special.”

Another special performance came against Detroit when he poured in a career-high 42 points against the Pistons on April 29. It was another homecoming of sorts, just down the road from his alma mater.

“I just wanted to put on a show for my loved ones,” said Hardaway, whose family, including his grandmother, was in the audience. 

He’s indeed putting on a show, not just for loved ones, but also for the many fans he has gained over his two seasons in Dallas. They may not have been sure about him at first, but now many want to ensure he stays a Maverick for a while. That fan club even includes other NBA players.

Hardaway’s contract is up at the end of this season, but the question of whether he remains in Dallas will have to wait. For now, there’s a series to be won. And that’s just what Hardaway and the Mavs intend to do. 

“We can feel any type we want to, but we just know we’re all up,” he said after  being asked postgame if he feels the Mavs have been “slept on” this season. “The only thing that matters is now, the staff, and the people helping us to be able to go out there and compete to the best of our abilities. And it’s a great situation that we’re in.

“We’re going to take full advantage of it. And we’re going to continue to stay locked in. Staying locked in and really focusing on ourselves and what we can do to get better.”

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